Friday, January 31, 2014

"American Idol" 2014: High steaks

The auditions conclude in Omaha, Nebraska

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 10:21 AM

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Auditions are already over! That was really fast. I am not complaining. Initial auditions are hands down my least-favorite part of this process (the sometimes interminable semi-finals are also right up there), so I'm glad that the show sped through them as quickly as possible this season. That said, of all the stops I say, Omaha, Nebraska, had easily the weakest talent on display.

Among the highlights:

Quaid Edwards made a huge mistake singing "A Change Is Gonna Come." Firstly, that song is so completely overdone on this show. I have last track of the number of times I have heard it, and basically none of them live up to the original. Secondaly, Quaid does not have the soul to pull off the song convincingly. His vocal was fine, but unspectacular. He is good looking. Girls will like him. But we have seen much better singers on this show - and we've seen them get cut. He got through by the skin of his teeth. His mom is a musician who had a connection to Keith Urban.

Madisen Walker, 15 but looks 32, did Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," and it wasn't anywhere near ready. There are some elements that worked here, especially toward the end of the song when the notes got lower. But her upper register was not great, and the judges were much too kind about her voice. Tellingly, after she left the judges all but said that she's going to get cut sooner rather than later. And seriously, I cannot believe that girl is 15.

Alyssa Siebken, 20, did an unplugged version of "No Hands" by WakkaFlokka Flame. She has a good voice, but that was such a goofy audition song. It bordered on gimmicky - like she wasn't taking it seriously. Keith and Jennifer said yes, Harry said no.

Tyler Gurwicz, 25, also did Adele - "Fire to the Rain" - and if I hate when girls sing Adele, I hate it when guys do it even more. It wasn't bad, though. He can definitely sing. Keith Urban thought that Tyler looked angry when he sang, and Harry Connick doesn't know where Tyler would fit in with this competition. Initially Keith and Harry both said no. Harry asked him to pick a tune to sing another song. Tyler was not immediately receptive - idiot - but eventually went into a second song that I didn't recognize. His pitch was problematic, but the bulk of it was solid.

C.J. Jones, 20, has a wonderful voice that frankly I was not expecting to come out of him. It's a great, honey-coated baritone. He did a lovely job on "Stand by Me." I am interested to see more from him.

Paula Hunt, 20, sings for a military band. She sang Etta James' "All I Could Do Is Cry," and she did a beautiful job with it. There is something very authentic about her. She tells a story when she sings. I could have listened to her sing all night long. And she is SO likable. Team Paula!

AndrinaBrogden, 18, did "Halo" by Beyonce. She did a very good approximation of the original song. Lopez stopped her early in and said that while she has a beautiful voice, her fear was shining through - Andrina was holding back. Harry thinks she can sing but she's not right for "Idol." Keith Urban liked everything about her, but she was clearly nervous about it. Keith and Jennifer put her through, but the advice was clear: she needs to conquer her nerves.

Tessa Kate, 25, did "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash. You could hear the nerves in her voice. I was not impressed during the first verse, but she came alive in the second and then I was into it. The judges compared her to Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn, and I see what they're saying. She has a very high-pitched, vibrato-filled voice, which reminded me a lot of classic Dolly Parton. That is TOTALLY a compliment.

Next: Hollywood Week...in a hangar. With all kinds of twists. And Keith Urban got a HAIRCUT! And of course, tears.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"American Idol" 2014: Sal Tlay Ka Siti

The Salt Lake City auditions produce talent, confusion, and...Tequila!

Posted By on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 11:58 AM

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Wednesday night's audition episode was an interesting blend of some great talent, some frustrating judging, and the benefits of the new approach to editing. All in all I do agree with whichever judge said that the performers they're seeing suggest that this should be a great season of the show. However, as well all know, that can quickly go to hell once we get to Hollywood Week and the show's star-making machine takes over.

Before we get into some of the specific contestants, I think it's worth mentioning what I consider a significant change in the types of people auditioning for this show. Specifically, we're seeing a lot more musicians, not just singers. There could be several reasons for this. This is the first season people have been allowed to use instruments in the initial rounds (it took 13 years to do that; mindboggling). The producers might just be editing the show to show more of those kinds of auditions. Or perhaps the pop-music landscape is leaning more toward that kind of artistry again. AutoTune and EDM are certainly everywhere, but if you look at the chart toppers from the past few years -- Lorde, Adele, Phillip Phillips, Gotye -- these are people with serious musical chops and, in most cases, some quirkiness or originality. There seem to be a lot more of those types of people trying out this season. Or at least the show is suggesting that is the case.

Take, for instance, Alex Preston, 20, a self-proclaimed band geek. He's got a good Jason Mraz thing going on (I mean, early Mraz, before he went all schmaltzy), and he seems to lose himself completely when he sings. You can tell that music is his language. He seems like a very nice boy and I dug what he was doing. I'll be curious to see how he adapts to the social challenges of Hollywood Week.

Samantha Calmes, 25, did an original song with a spoken-word rap opening before breaking into a soulful, clipped voice. The piece was slippery - I couldn't quite get a hold of it. She then went on to sing the theme song from "The Jeffersons," which was a trip. The voice didn't wow me, nor the judges, but we all liked her musical style and originality.

Kenzie Hall, 16, did a John Mayer song I'm not aware of, and I just loved her. She's got a big voice, huge personality, is totally cute, and she can pull back and put on the gas - she is one to WATCH.

Casey Thrasher, 22, was heavily pimped all night. He did "Believe" by Brooks & Dunn. He's got a nice male country voice, and he got emotional in his audition. I question how large his range is, but he is very likable and very earnest. He has two tiny kids, but there was no mention of their mother. I found that very odd.

D.J. Bradley, 20, did "Hometown Glory" by Adele. I am generally against Adele songs for auditions - there's basically no way to live up to the original. But I like what Bradley did here; he turned it into something sadder, contemplative, longing. His pitch was flat on the high notes, but he has a good vibe/image with the "misunderstood rocker" thing. Keith Urban called it a balance between mysterious vs. disinterested, which I think is fair.

Dexter Roberts, 22, is about as country as it gets. He is VERY Oklahoma. He did a Casey James song. Good lord, this guy can sing and play. He's really terrific, and I was not expecting that. He's better than Casey James ever was, in my opinion. (I know Casey has his fans. That's great. I'm glad you love him.) Dexter was bluesy and country and undeniably good.

To me, those were the stand-out auditions of the night. But there were several instances where I found the judging confusing. Harry Connick Jr. - whom I really enjoy - was particularly off. He nixed several contestants who I thought had loads of promise, while giving a pass to others who seemed to be struggling already.

Specifically I'm talking about Jessica Barrett, 22, who has one of the prettiest voices I have ever heard on this show - I swear I thought it was a recording when she started singing. Sure, she's a little awkward. The "wattage" isn't there. But she was told no by both Urban and Connick, while Jennifer Lopez told them they were making a huge mistake. I think Lopez is right. That was a boneheaded pass for this show, especially considering some of the other people who got through.

Such as C.J. Harris, who did an Allman Brothers song in honor of his father. Harris seems very sincere and his voice has a nice whoop to it when he hits the big notes, but he slides off the pitch an awful lot. He can play guitar well enough, but you could hear him forcing stuff that shouldn't have sound forced. But he is unquestionably likable, and that's why he got through.

Similarly, Carmen Delgina, 24, is the daughter of Wonder Mike from Sugar Hill Gang, which is fabulous. She struggled through her audition of "Tainted Love." There is some talent there, but the breath control was way off and nothing about it felt like it was working. Jennifer called her "inconsistent." Keith said that there was a disconnect between the voice and the confidence. They gave her three yesses, and I'm just going to say it: that was all because of her backstory.

The biggest example of the inconsistent judging last night came from two young men with similar issues: they're blatantly ripping off the signature sounds of other artists. One was awful yet the judges liked him. The other was really good at what he did, yet got shit for it. BristonMaroney, 15, did "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones, and he has one of the most pinched, annoying voices I've ever heard. He sounded angry or in pain, like he was constipated. Keith wanted to hear "other colors" in his voice, and Harry was worried that he would blow his vocal chords singing with that affect. He had absolutely no business getting through to Hollywood. He's cute and seems nice, but that was actually unpleasant to listen to.

Meanwhile, Johnny Newcomb, 16, did "Last Kiss" by Pearl Jam, basically allowing the spirit of Eddie Vedder to possess him. THAT is how you do an affected voice without being egregious. He successfully convinced the judges to let him do a second song, and that was even better. Lopez said that Johnny was too good to say no to, but Harry thought he was too young and derivative - like there haven't been a million other derivative kids on this show. Keith blessedly gave him another shot. I think he's really good.

The weird Harry stuff continued with Kassandra Castaneda, 16, who did "Chasing Pavements" by, again, Adele. She too did a good job with the song. Really lovely voice. She should have turned down her creepy uncle's request to give JLo his number. Harry also didn't think she was ready. I just don't understand what he sees in some of these kids that he's not seeing in others. Thankfully Keith believed that she would blossom in Hollywood Week, and JLo put her right through.

Finally, let us all give thanks to the show for introducing us to Tequila Wilson, 24, a funeral-home singer who gives me life. She did "Someone Like You" by Adele and she came closest to doing Adele justice Wednesday night. It got a little shouty in parts, and a little flat in others. But there is great potential there. She had such huge energy when she came into the holding pen, and was awfully subdued in the actual audition. But she's got some sass. MORE TEQUILA!

TONIGHT: The auditions end. That was brief. Thank you, show.

Monday, January 27, 2014

“Looking” Episode 2: Cautionary tales of the city

Posted By on Mon, Jan 27, 2014 at 10:03 AM

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The second episode of "Looking" addressed one of the main complaints I heard about the premiere -- it was much faster paced. So that's good, although it's still a fairly quiet show. I don't see that changing any time soon, nor do I think it needs to -- I like the more thoughtful look at contemporary gay life.

The main plots were: Agustin moved out of the apartment he shared Patrick and into a cohab scenario with boyfriend Frank -- but the new place is out in Oakland. Patrick had another awkward date, this time with sweet Richie, the guy he met on the bus last episode. And most importantly, Dom met with his Bad Idea Ex, who was even douchier than we could have imagined. That went poorly, and then Dom tried to fuck the pain away with a trick, introducing straight America to the sweaty joys of Grindr.

Agustin continues to be the show's weak link. I'm not even convinced the showrunners like him. This is a gay man who is embarrassed to hang a picture of a unicorn filled with cocks in his home. He even made it himself! You shifty artist hipster... He is basically now living the Miranda plotline from latter-day episodes of "Sex and the City" -- just substitute Oakland for Brooklyn -- and we can only pray that the season doesn't end with Anne Meara eating pizza out of a garbage can. If the show is trying to tell us that gay couples are boring unless they are having fuck times with other people, it is succeeding brilliantly.

I will say this for Agustin: he is quite the shit stirrer. Last week it was suggested that he's the one who encouraged Patrick to go cruising in the park. This week he's the reason Patrick went down the Google rabbit hole searching for info on uncut Latino penis (would a 29-year-old really be that oblivious to the circumcision spectrum?). I don't know if Agustin is intentionally messing with the kid, or trying to get him to expand his horizons, but the results thus far have been consistently mortifying.

So, let's talk about Patrick. My best friend and I were discussing the first episode -- which he hated -- and specifically how poorly Patrick is portrayed on the show. It's true that Patrick is a total mess, which we saw again this episode. I was physically cringing in almost every scene he shared with Richie. It's not that Patrick is a bad guy. But good lord, he is so socially awkward, so utterly inept at dating. I think this show should be required viewing for every 20something gay boy, because Patrick is a cautionary tale on what NOT to say. He has so little game, he makes Candyland look like Risk. He drinks too much on dates. He is overly flirty (at least he was with Richie; interesting to note the change in dynamics between this date and with asshole doctor last episode). He is beyond clumsy in his attempts to get physical. And worst, possibly a little bit racist. He even admits that himself.

And that is where the character, for me, is redeemable. Patrick is aware that he has no idea what he's doing. He knows he's got massive faults. And I honestly believe that most gay guys his age are probably closer to Patrick's personal brand of Hell than they are apart from it. Last episode Dom told Patrick that he needs to stop caring about what people think of him. What screwed up his situation with Richie? He was determined to screw around with him (to impress his friends/prove that he could) and he was obsessed with Richie's penis, which, again was planted in his head by his friend. This is the tragedy of Patrick, and I think with quite a lot of young gay men. They're so stuck on what everyone else is expecting of them that they really have no idea what they are actually looking for. The brief mentions of Patrick's family back in Colorado suggest to me that he comes from a conservative background, so his personality is crystallizing. It doesn't make it any easier to watch, but certainly more understandable. You eat that mac 'n' cheese after your disastrous date, Patrick! That is what you do!

And then there is Dom, who is basically the best. Last week a nation groaned, "Noooooo!" when Dom picked up the phone to call his ex, whom his faithful fruit fly (her name is apparently Doris, which I find hard to believe, as she is not 80 years old) warned was basically a human enema. This week we got to meet Mr. Fleet, and he was even worse than we could have imagined. Skin-crawlingly bad, right from his first appearance. Dom handled the whole scenario as best as he could, and it climaxed with him not getting back together with Real Estate Dick, but by demanding that this allegedly very-well-off d-bag repay the $8,000 Dom gave him years ago so that he could to rehab to kick his meth habit. Shocker: the jackass refused, and was condescending to boot. Poor Dom. Poor, brutally hot Dom.

Dom reacted to the whole awful scenario by doing what most gay men do when they're lonely/sad/depressed/frustrated: he went tricking. For those who don't know, Grindr is a smart-phone app for gay men that allows them to virtually cruise dudes in their immediate vicinity. It is used primarily for sex, although I've heard some people try to date with it, which is cute. So yes, you meet a guy on Grindr, you share pics, briefly discuss your sexual tastes, and if it's a match, within a half hour a perfect stranger is in your home, and you are having all the sex. This is a thing that really happens in gay world. Quite a bit, actually. I love that this show is exposing mainstream America to this stuff. I also love that it gave us Doris commenting on Dom's showtune-loving, shower-singing twink conquest. That was the best part of the episode. Show: more Doris. Give me all the Doris. Why do we not have a Grindr that matches lonely, fabulous gay men with lonely, fabulous straight women? We could call it Hagsville. Million-dollar idea!

Next: Patrick is presented with a job opportunity from Jack Harkness's old trick; Dom encounters Dr. Sam Backett in a sauna and they go on a hot-daddy time-travel adventure; Agustin and Frank argue over duvet covers in Bed Bath & Beyond. (I'm kidding; Agustin and Frank would never do anything that interesting.)

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Friday, January 24, 2014

"American Idol" 2014: You should meet her dagent (Atlanta auditions)

Posted By on Fri, Jan 24, 2014 at 11:01 AM

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Thursday night's Atlanta auditions continued the Season 13 trend of being pleasant, uplifting, and largely enjoyable. So that's nice. But I started to see the downside to this Up With People panel: there were people getting through who I, frankly, thought had no business getting golden tickets. Granted, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr. are music-industry professionals, and maybe they know more about what it takes to succeed in that business than I do. (Please note the sarcasm in the previous sentence.) But having watched this show for 10 seasons, I did not think the talent stacked up nearly as high as they would have us believe.

A few of the more notable auditions:

Majesty Rose is such a special, interesting contestant. "Violet Hill" by Coldplay was a little low in her register -- she struggled to even voice the lower notes -- but she was captivating to watch. I question how she will fare once the show's bombast overwhelms everything else. But I think she's really lovely and I hope she sticks around.

Jesse Cline, the gas-station attendant, was a pleasant surprise. At first the show seemed to be setting him up as a joke contestant. Even Connick called him, "The ultimate Cinderella." But he's got a great folky blues sound. The panel talked about his believability, which I totally get from him, even if his aesthetic and mannerisms do not scream "future music superstar."

Chris Medina - have we not already had someone on this show by that name? - has all the qualities for a strong contestant. Decent voice, military background, handsome guy (needs a stylist). But his version of "Chasing Pavements" didn't do a lot for me. And the dog thing was weird. Who brings their dog to "Idol" auditions? That is not a healthy environment for your dog friend.

Sam Burchfield did "I Wanna Be Like You," from "The Jungle Book," which was a terrible audition song. It's too gimmicky. I mean, it's super fun, and it showed off his personality. But it was very difficult to get a sense of his actual voice. I would have liked to have heard something else from him. I'm glad that Connick brought up Sam's overly affected pronunciation when singing, because it was super annoying. I couldn't get a read on this guy.

Jessica Meuse gave me Jem-gone-country vibes with her bright pink hair. I think she's got big potential, but she has to tone down the shrill vibrato. Her original song was something I could conceivably hear on the radio. Certainly she knows how to perform. Connick said that she's a down-ass chick, and I can see that.

I have nothing good to say about Lauren Ogburn, who looked like America threw up on her, and rushed her way through one of my all-time favorite songs about prostitutes, "Fancy." The singing was basic karaoke, she had negative charisma, and she got THREE YESSES. This is what I'm talking about with this panel. That was a thoroughly mediocre audition, and that girl was about ready to crap herself. And the judges gave her nothing but praise. Ridiculous.

Two former Top 40 contestants from Season 11 came back for another try. (I'm curious as to why they skipped Season 12, or if the show just decided not to show them.) I actually recalled both of them. Neco Starr tried way too hard and was inauthentic to me. I found his nasal, high-pitched voice almost unpleasant. Caleb Johnson has a big voice that reminded me in part of Meat Loaf. He is desperately in need of a makeover. They both got through, although Neco was already given a warning by Connick to tone down the screech. Thank you, Harry.

The show closed with Bria Anai, who is 15 but looks 22. Am I the only one finding this trend troubling? These teenagers who could easily, easily pass as 20something? I suspect her accelerated aesthetic has quite a bit to do with her "momager," which is a term I most often hear associated with Kardashians and Lohans, and therefore should not be used with pride. Bria sang Adele - so much Adele last night - and she has a nice voice, but she overemotes. It was unbelievable. She's 15. She has no idea what those lyrics mean. If she sticks around they are inevitably going to chide her for inappropriate song choices. In that regard, poor Bria is kind of trapped, because she's just doing what she's been told.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Looking" Episode 1: Where the boys are

Posted By on Mon, Jan 20, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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Sunday night HBO debuted its new drama/comedy "Looking," often referred to as "gay 'Girls'" or "guy 'Sex and the City'" or, as I call it, "a younger version of 'Golden Girls,' except set in San Francisco, and everyone has penises, not just Dorothy." (I kid. Lamely.)

Although the tone of the series is different from what I was expecting -- parts of it almost felt like a documentary -- I quite enjoyed the pilot. The show felt very authentic; these characters seemed like very real people who were doing and saying very real things. In an economical 30 minutes the episode established the three main characters, set the series firmly in San Francisco, kicked off the major character arcs, and even included a truncated handjob in the park. What more do you want?

Our protagonists are:

Patrick (played by Jonathan Groff), a 29-year-old video-game developer. Patrick is in many ways the ideal late-20something gay guy. He's cute. He's intelligent. He's perky. He is also kind of a mess. His longest relationship lasted six months (less than that, if you ask his friend), and it becomes clear pretty quickly that Patrick has no idea what he actually wants when it comes to his love life. In the course of one episode he goes cruising for sex in the park (ostensibly for "fun," but methinks the lady doth protest too much), obsessively checks his OKCupid account, goes on a borderline comically bad date, and passively flirts with a guy on the bus, who he dismisses because he's an aspiring hairdresser. At one point Patricks asks, "Why do I go on so many bad dates?" And a nation of perennially single gay men simultaneously said, "Yep," and then realized, "Oh, shit. That's why."

Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), Patrick's roommate, an assistant to an artist who makes terrible modern sculpture. Augustin got the short shrift in the premiere; he is the least defined of the main characters. We know that he is in a long-term relationship with Frank, and early in the episode they agree to move in together (note that Augustin never really gives Frank a reason why he's moving in now, after saying no to Frank twice before). Agustin seems to be the most "San Francisco" of the group, and apparently the most adventurous -- he engages in a spontaneous threeway with his partner and a colleague, despite an apparent lack of consensus about "guest stars" with Frank.

Dom (Murray Bartlett) is a 39-year-old certified hot piece who is finding that his stud services are not as in demand as they once were. (That twink was a fool, Dom; anyone who rejects the pick-up line, "Let me put my positive energy into your universe" is not worth your time.) Dom is a waiter and clearly expected more out of life. He is currently somewhat obsessed with an ex who is now very successful in the real-estate game, but who is also apparently a psycho.

The two major criticisms I've seen of the show thus far is that it is a) slow and b) overly obsessed with sex. I disagree with both. There was certainly a bit of a lull in the middle of the first episode. But when you consider how much character establishing went on in a relatively short amount of time, I hardly think you could argue it was "slow." "Quiet," is more like it, and that seems to be the aesthetic.

That is a change of pace from other gay-centric shows, most notably "Queer as Folk," to which "Looking" will obviously be compared. But "QAF" was often cartoonish in both its plots and its execution. "Looking" seems very, very real. Sometimes painfully so. The three main characters, especially Patrick, are unvarnished. While Patrick is likable and we immediately root for him, all of the nasty characteristics of gay culture were right there from the beginning. Superficial and shallow? Check. Status obsessed? Yep. Reflexively bitchy?Mmhmm.

But as hard as it was to see those characteristics on display, especially in the character who is unquestionably our chief protagonist, I found it refreshing to see such an honest portrayal on television. That painfully awkward date between Patrick and the doctor? How many of us have sat through a date just like that 10 times over? (Raises hand.) And seeing it played out in front of you on television, you realized that both parties involved were kind of awful.

The creators have wisely conceived main characters that should speak, in one way or another, to virtually any gay man in his 20s or 30s (and probably older). And I was impressed with how many real modern gay issues were tackled in that first episode. That bit about Patrick's ex getting engaged to a guy he met four months ago? That is totally a thing that is happening right now. Gay couples wrestling with the concept of monogamy? That's virtually every gay couple I know. (In Augustin's defense, the colleague had a tattoo of Dolly Parton's signature on his stomach. If that's not a green light from God, I don't know what is.) Dom dealing with the realities of aging in an image- and youth-obsessed culture? They've barely scratched the surface on that one.

As for the show's alleged obsession with sex, I say: bunk. In the first episode you had the interrupted park cruising, a couple wrapping up a session of wake-up sex, and the beginnings of a threeway. That's it. None of it was graphic. There was no nudity. The park sex and threeway could be accused of being sensational, except those things really do happen. And both scenes spoke to essential faults in the characters involved.

Yes, the characters talk about sex a lot. But these are gay men in their 20s/30s. Two out of three of them are single. It's going to come up. But consider what Dom and Patrick were expressing for most of the episode. These are men who are, as the series title explicitly states, looking for something more. Something deeper. And it isn't easy to find, regardless of your sexual orientation. When you are lonely and frustrated, as Dom and Patrick clearly are, you're logically going to turn to a quick fix for human intimacy. To me, the sex talk was less about actual sex, and a lot more about these guys searching for a connection, any connection.

My major concern, frankly, is that the most entertaining scenes by far involved minor characters. Dom's interaction with his female roommate (I think; she is also apparently his former girlfriend) had me literally laughing out loud. Ditto Patrick's discussion on online dating with his coworker, and Frank and Augustin's flirty drinks with their eventual conquest. I suppose it's natural that the three main characters, who have apparently been friends for a while, would be less "on" when they're around each other. But all of them were at their best when interacting with people we probably won't see all that often on the show.

What did you all think?

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Friday, January 17, 2014

“American Idol 2014”: Judging the Season 13 panel

Posted By on Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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"It's watchable again!" That's been the tone of the bulk of the reviews for the 13th season of "American Idol," which premiered this week. That's both true and an exaggeration. "Idol" is almost always watchable, even when it's bad. And yeah, last season was definitely not great (although not the worst - that dishonor still goes to Season 9). But even though I was dreading going into the "Idol" meat grinder one more time, I actually quite enjoyed Thursday night's episode. So my take is that Season 13 isn't just watchable. I found it downright entertaining, and I hope the show can sustain the really lovely tone it established this week.

There are several reasons for the improvement. The most obvious is the new judging panel of Keith Urban (the only judge to survive the culling after Season 12), the returning Jennifer Lopez (previously on seasons 10 and 11), and new judge Harry Connick Jr. The three of them are, frankly, delightful. Warm, friendly, and yet able to dish out legitimately useful critiques to the aspiring singers. Even when Connick gives someone the business, there is a paternal, constructive tone to his criticisms. Urban seems much more comfortable in his role than he did at the start of last season. And Lopez, who is I think unfairly dismissed by a lot people, knows what it takes to be a top performer. I have always found her to be insightful even if she is essentially the "nice judge."

The new judges already have a nice chemistry - Connick and Urban are total bros, and Lopez is nicely playing up the "princess" stereotype while simultaneously taking the piss out of it. Note how the producers are underscoring the congenial vibe between them. That is deliberate. One of the things that contributed to last year's significant dip in ratings was the much-ballyhooed feud between then-judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. The media was screaming "catfight!" before the two of them even got close to the judging table. And the truth is, it was NEVER that bad. Yep, there was tension. They clearly did not like one another. And there were a few on-air eruptions. But Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell had some pretty spectacular verbal slap fights in the earlier seasons of the show, and they never got the kind of negative press Minaj and Carey did. There was more than a soupcon of sexism involved there. (And for the record, Minaj was a pretty solid judge. Carey was among the most useless ever on the show, second only to S9's Ellen DeGeneres.)

So, anyway: great panel. Great vibe. And that extended to the footage the producers chose to show viewers. Even the obviously bad contestants were treated like a charming diversion instead of targets for cruelty, as used to be the case during the Simon years. On Thursday the unsuccessful candidates (that we saw) were almost universally treated with dignity. The segment with Ronald Reed, an extremely enthusiastic young man who had little in the tank vocally, was difficult to watch, but I appreciated that neither the judges nor the editors mocked his sincerity.

The production values have been significantly goosed. The show seems to be borrowing from the much slicker "X Factor," except "Idol" is doing it better than "Factor" ever has. (Unsurprising, as that show has been a dud since it debuted.) The pacing is hugely improved. In the past some of the initial auditions have been interminable, but they worked through contestants in a rapid fashion Thursday night.

Speaking of contestants - allegedly the point of this show - there were a few notable auditions on Thursday. They included:

*Spencer Lloyd - if this kid makes it to live voting he will be difficult to stop. His vocals aren't great. They're serviceable. But holy cow, is he just about the prettiest thing I have ever seen on this show. Teenage girls (and their moms) will eat him up.

*Tristan Langley, the 15-year-old son of Nikki McKibben, who came in third in Season 1. That makes Tristan first second-generation "Idol" contestant. Man, is this show old. Anyway, Tristan is again VERY pretty; total girl bait. He has some odd pronunciation stuff happening, but he can sing and play guitar. And come on, how do you resist that story?

*Rachel Rolleri, 17, is the high-school senior who sang "Stay." She's a great singer, cute as a button, and very personable. She is one to watch, if she can get her goofy screw-up faces under control.

*Briana Oakley made an impression last season, and I was glad to see her back. She does need to pull back on the melisma a bit, but she has a wonderful voice.

*Adam Roth is a hot piece and I am super into him. Great voice and I love the sound healing thing. I know he'll get cut in Hollywood Week, but I don't care. I just like looking at his luxurious locks and that hot beard. Dreamy...

Other notable changes to format: contestants are now allowed to use instruments in the initial audition rounds, which is so goddamned obvious that I question why it took this long to happen. And The Chamber - the tiny holding pen they put the contestants in before seeing the judges - is so unbelievably stupid. Come on, show. You are doing so well. Let's not fight like this.

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