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American Idol season premiere recap: Welcome Back!

New judge Kara DioGuardi joins our original three in Phoenix at the start of season 8 for the fun that is the early auditions, where some thrill (Deanna Brown), others confound (X-Ray), and one inspires (Scott MacIntyre)

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Deanna Brown Alex Wagner Truman

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

In my twisted mind, the typical American Idol audition episode is the reality-show equivalent of The Silence of the Lambs, but instead of human victims, cherished selections from the American songbook are left screaming for mercy down in the basement pit. And, of course, subbing for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, the upstart agent with the West Virginia twang and a mind for crime, we get Simon Cowell, the seen-it-all record exec with the uppity British accent and a weakness for shameless chicks who are as short on talent as they are on clothing.

Tonight’s eighth season premiere, though, played more like Lambs whittled down for a primetime network viewing audience. Gone (thankfully) were the gory and gratuitous moments — the gleefully unflinching mockery of folks with obvious physical, mental, and emotional woes — that often made Idol‘s opening weeks a chore for those of us who are more interested in discovering the next Jennifer Hudson than, say, William Hung 2.0. But just because the judges picked (mostly) on egos close to their own size didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of moments tonight that had me scrambling to shield my eyes with my hands.

There was Ryan Seacrest offering a high-five to a blind man. There was a young woman giving us a tour of her bikini-waxing regions before we’d even learned her last name. And how about the montage of contestants who apparently don’t know the difference between cities, countries, and continents? (Did Congress pass the controversial No Child’s Ignorance Left Untelevised Act when I wasn’t paying attention?)

And while I could complain that (as usual) the producers almost completely skimped on showing us the kinds of talented singers that can make an Idoloonie start dreaming of the Nokia Theater in May, let’s start by focusing on five huge positives from tonight’s telecast.

1. Simon was in truly hilarious form — without ever reverting to a soul-crushing ”Bush Baby” moment. Yes, not only did the cranky Brit avoid falling back on his overused ”cruise ship”/”cabaret” critiques, but he pounded his punch lines harder and faster and more frequently than winners off Roger Federer’s forehand side at Wimbledon. Simon’s zestiest zinger came as he listened to Paula advise misguided rocker Randy Madden that he needed to experience the camaraderie of a band to improve his musical artistry. ”How do you think ‘Straight Up’ was written?” deadpanned Simon. (Although, for the record, ”Straight Up” is an undeniable classic.) And then, of course, there was 16-year-old Arianna Afsar explaining how she and her pals work to cheer up lonely nursing-home residents through her ”Adopt a Grandfriend” foundation. ”So if Paula came to Arizona on her own,” interjected Simon, ”you would help her out?” Honestly, you cannot script stuff that good. (I actually enjoyed Arianna loose, playful performance; I just wish she’d waited three or four years to iron out some of the robotic ”I’m a precocious teen star!” traits that eventually made me turn against Lisa Tucker, Paris Bennett, and Diana DeGarmo, to name a few past contestants.)

NEXT: The new judge brings it