LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - There's a snap in the air and a new date on the calendar, which can only mean one thing: "American Idol" auditions! For tens of millions of viewers, it really is the most wonderful time of the year.
Sure, "Idol" is a bit full of its own importance: Tuesday night's episode opened with a montage summarizing judge Paula Abdul's departure and Ellen DeGeneres' hire, highlighted as if they had earth-shaking consequences. But that self-hype is a virus. "Idol" fever is more contagious than H1N1, and those not on board with believing that it is the last vestige of old-school water-cooler TV might as well go watch reruns of "Southland" on TNT.
Nine seasons in, "Idol" remains a well-honed machine: Three regular judges, one rotating guest judge (Victoria Beckham for two days in Boston; DeGeneres won't join until early February) and head cheerleader Ryan Seacrest. Of course, the real heroes of the show are the editors and screeners who had to sort through tens of thousands of applicants and send through the few dozen most entertaining.
No one disappointed. The personalities belting out their best were alternately hilarious (a hostile, bespectacled young man who angered Kara DioGuardi); clueless (the woman who kept calling Kara "Paula"); inspiring (a young girl with three disabled brothers who sang well and, noted Simon Cowell, "unlike most 16 year olds, you're not annoying"); and every so often blow-away talented. Who doesn't tear up when a four-thumbs-up winner bounds into the arms of his or her posse?
Still, it's the schadenfreude derived from the car-crash singers and Cowell's stinging barbs that keeps the show from being one long sloppy hug. (Beckham did provide the highlight of the evening, though, calling out Cowell on his continually rolling eyes.) And there are always wannabes who never knew they couldn't sing -- including one woman who broke down, failing to understand why her multiple vocal coaches never clued her in.
Ultimately, "Idol" isn't about the psychological exploration of delusion; it's about finding marketable singers and watching them go from schlub to star. This year, which is expected to be Cowell's last, makes it even more must-see TV. Oh, there will be more triumphs, more failures and more snark in years to come, but without Cowell and his rolling eyes, this really is something of a swan-song season. So enjoy this most wonderful time of year while you can.