In one of the early auditions on the new season of American Idol, the singer is visibly nervous and is having trouble starting her song. "Just relax. Take a deep breath, and take your time," says Kara DioGuardi, the new judge from last year. "We're rooting for you," she says. Randy Jackson and whoever the other guest-judge was (Katy Perry? Shania Twain? Victoria Beckham? Kristin Chenowith? Avril Lavigne? Joe Jonas? Mary J. Blige? Doogie Howser?) nodded in agreement. Then Simon chirpped "I'm not," and laughed to himself. That little exchange is why American Idol remains worth watching.

Idol, in its ninth season, is identical in format and content to all the previous seasons (if the highest rated show of all time ain't broke, don't fix it). The first six or so episodes are by far the most fun to watch, when thousands audition in a handful of cities. By necessity, the contestants who get air time either have heart-wrenching stories (one girl had four adopted brothers with Down Syndrome), are possible candidates to win the whole show (wake me up when they're done, please) or are so utterly horrible that they made it to the final judges by being passed from each snickering preliminary judge to the next. Although occasionally these people know they can't sing, which can be enjoyable, because everyone's in on the joke, the horrific truth is that most are narcissistic morons who have either never been told they are terrible, or have never believed it.

The judges are a spectacle themselves. Randy Jackson is basically a non-entity, except for the weird things he sometimes says, and his tourettes-esque repetition of "dog." Kara DioGuardi, who joined last year, is nice, has a bit of an attitude (possibly bitter about her lack of stardom) and can sometimes say something worth listening to. Paula Abdul, who could barely string two words together, was only interesting when interacting with Simon. This year, Ellen Degeneres took over for her, and so far, seems to be funnier, meaner, and more fun to watch. Ryan Seacrest is bubbly and entertaining as the host. Finally, there's Simon Cowell who was on the original British model of the show, Pop Idol, and will leave Idol next year to start a new Idol clone, The X Factor. Simon is always right and almost always clever. He loves to tell someone they suck and we love to hear him do it. This virtue has single-handedly made this show the ratings juggernaut it is.

After the audition episodes are over, there's Hollywood week, when the judges take the approximately 150 chosen singers and dwindle that number down to 24–12 men, 12 women. Hollywood week is fun because you remember many of the people, but just barely, so there is a certain amount of rediscovery when you see them again. Still, most won't make it past Hollywood week. Hollywood week's format is to have a quick solo sing in the first day, when some will be eliminated, then, the next day, to divide the remaining contestants into groups for a group sing, which is almost always disastrous. The songs they have to choose from are very limited, so there's a lot of screw-ups and a lot of forgetting the words, and, as Simon says, if you forget the words, you're out. Eventually, there's a final elimination, and we're down to the "Top 24."

Once we're reduced to 24 finalists, suddenly people are featured as individuals more than before, and if their sad story hasn't already been milked enough (did I mention the girl with four adopted brothers with Down Syndrome?), expect it to be milked now, which has the added advantage of your rooting for some people and then rooting against others. Even though they may have had good auditions, people can still reveal themselves to be "terrible" singers at this point, so there is still a lot of reason to watch.

Unfortunately, as the number of contestants dwindle, so do the reasons to watch. By the time the competition is down to the top eight or so, you might find yourself fast-forwarding through songs you don't like, and skipping the cheesy Ford commercials and similar family-friendly fluff pieces. Because some weeks are themed, you may find yourself missing complete episodes, especially the results show, and by the time the finale rolls around, you will have lost all interest whatsoever, no matter how dramatic it may be. Last year, when Adam Lambert, the most talented contestant ever on the show, lost to the bland Kris Allen, I felt more relieved that it was over than incensed at the injustice. So catch what you can of this season before Simon jumps ship, and so do I.

Starring: Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres, Kara DioGuardi, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest
Created by: Simon Fuller
Network: FOX
Airs: Tuesdays, 8/7c, Wednesdays 9/8c

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