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American Idol Recap: Simon’s Last Go-round Begins in Boston

Following the news that Simon Cowell will be leaving American Idol after this year, the season-nine premiere was impossible to watch without judging every moment through the lens of whether the show can survive without him. We all know it's the British Grinch (the Brinch? Has anyone coined that term yet? Is it too late for a trademark? We'll be rich! Rich! Or not.) who puts Idol leagues ahead of other talent-based reality shows. If he's not there next year to roll his eyes and bluntly tell people they have no future, will it still be fun to watch? Will it even be American Idol?

Simon's caustic wit (or if you prefer, horrendous cruelty: potato, po-tah-to) was especially welcome during last night's episode, which brought an eclectic crew of Boston-area hopefuls whose delusional self-images, aggressively bad attitudes, and/or hideous facial hair could not detract from the fact that most of them were boring singers. You know, starry-eyed kids who don't embarrass themselves, sure, but lack the talent, confidence, or — and we hate to sound like a shill for Simon's new project here — "X factor" to make it to the top.

Oh, and speaking of boring singers, we wondered how Idol would play without Paula, and we hardly felt her absence. Kara DioGuardi fills the compassionate judge role more than adequately, and when she did have criticism, it was actually grounded in musical reality. The guest judge was Victoria Beckham, and the former Spice Girl was excessively gentle in her critiques — her polite British manners were much more Mary Poppins than spice up your life.

The most hilarious and cringe-inducing moment came courtesy of a sulking, angry young man named Andrew, who looked like a serial killer Billy Crudup. He began his audition by complaining about his three-hour wait and then informed Simon that his icebreaker, "So why are you here?" question was a stupid thing to ask. After removing his horn-rimmed glasses, the whiny whippersnapper glared through a snappish talk-sing version of "House of the Rising Sun." It came off sounding like the working song someone would sing while building a cage out of human bones. As if Andrew hadn't alienated the judges enough, he continued harping on his waiting ordeal, causing the typically tame Kara to tear the kid apart, calling him "very naughty," saying he deserves a spanking, and going for the clichéd blow of doubtfully inquiring if he has ever had a girlfriend. (Watch this confrontation of the ages below!) After all this, Simon actually gave the kid a yes, but the three other resounding no's sent the boy home, where he will presumably not have to wait nearly as long for Extra to book him for an interview. But what of Simon's turnaround on Andrew? Granted, he often warms to the aggressive auditioners, provided they have a bizarre charm, but perhaps on some level he saw how Andrew's departure from the show foreshadowed his own departure, leaving the program with nothing but kind blandness.

(Another WTF contender was the self-described "spiritual" Derek, who informed America that his sincerest desire was to "touch" numerous amounts of people, and returned to this unintentionally creepy theme so often that even Tobias Funke would have blushed.)

It wasn't all weirdos and intentional tankers, but of all the yellow Hollywood-ticket earners, Ashley Rodriguez was the only one who looked like she could be a real contender. Her soulful, breathy rendition of Alicia Keys's "If I Aint Got You" instantly commanded the judges' attention. With her refreshing modesty and understated grace, she made us actually look forward to hearing her sing again.

Ultimately, the premiere was simultaneously amusing and disheartening. Even after nine years, it's still depressing to see that nearly every person who tries out truly believes they are good enough to make it big, no matter how misguided a dream that may be, and it's impossible to be inured to the sight of them collapsing into their mothers' arms when told they have no talent. And for many, the yellow ticket is just false hope, making the inevitable comedown even steeper; among the 31 contestants who made it to Hollywood, you know most (if not all) of them will be entirely forgotten in a matter of months.

In a few years, could the same be said of Idol itself? Will Simon's departure mean a slow death for the megahit franchise? It's hard to say. Randy Jackson has the musical insight and knowledge, and occasionally he makes it known through all his dawgs and pitchys, but snark does not come naturally; it'll be interesting to see if he spots his opening and tries to elbow his way into the brutal-critic role. Kara's sharp-tongued moments only come when she's been personally aggrieved by a contestant, but not through any musical judgment. And maybe when Ellen finally makes her Idol debut, the universally liked comedian will take off the gloves and start crushing dreams, but that seems very unlikely. But for now we still have Simon, so let's enjoy him while we're off to Atlanta and its fashion-forward hopefuls.

More Recaps:
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak expects last night’s performers will be “gobbled up and digested like plates of delicious bowtie pasta when the competition heads to Hollywood.”
Adam Bryant at TV Guide decided Kara “came off looking kind of childish” when she dug her claws into Andrew.
The episode made Claire Zulkey at he AV Club laugh "a few times," especially after "the slow-motion cut of [Derek] blowing the flower as it fell limply on the ground."

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX