The poor stage managers have barely finished sweeping up the glittery confetti from the X-Factor USA's inauspicious debut, and yet here we are again, ready to be thrust back into another maelstrom of tears, key changes and incomprehensible feedback. It's time for the granddaddy of them all, American Idol, to return for its eleventh season. And if I'm going to sit through it, you're coming with me.
There were doubts that Idol would ever make it this far, after it was announced that Simon was upping sticks to focus on his other shows. But against all the odds, the show flourished in season ten. Audiences responded well to the new judging line-up of Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson, and all was right with the world. Well, apart from last year's grand finale, which was like being stuck at a hoedown in the seventh circle of hell.
Tonight's show opens with "Where were you when it all started?" and I can't help feeling that there's a none-too-subtle reference to the Kennedy assassination in there. Do you remember what you were doing when Simon Cowell first put a bullet in modern music? We're also treated to the usual crowd scenes, as well as close-ups of people driving and, weirdly, an aircraft carrier. For some reason, the camera crews have all been tasked with capturing as many rising crane shots as they can. But played back to back, I find that five minutes in and I'm already reaching for the Benadryl. And let's not forget lovely Jennifer Lopez, who tells us that she's delighted to be back with Randy and Steven, saying "They're like my family now." Marc Anthony is laughing bitterly at the irony in that. The big twist this year is that, instead of sending professional film crews to capture the back-stories of the favourites, they've just briefed all contestants to film their own experiences on their smartphones. It's all a bit Cloverfield, just without the hideous lizard monster. Oh, sorry, there he is in a giant pink pimp's hat.
First contestant of the night is an obnoxiously overconfident young boy called David. He says he's seventeen, but his admittedly impressive singing voice doesn't appear to have broken yet. He might want to be the new Michael Jackson, but he's got a better chance of being the new Garry Coleman. "Are we having fun yet?" asks Randy. No, not particularly. Sixteen year-old Gaby is a tap dancer and really wants to meet host Ryan Seacrest. I can't blame her, I'd also like to get up close and personal with the man who's responsible for giving the world Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Ten minutes and a shovel should do it.
There's a great moment where one girl does a pretty good Whitney Houston, and we see Jennifer Lopez miming the words. But, it's not as if anyone really expected her to be able to sing along, did we? Meanwhile, in the background, the waves are getting decidedly choppy and are in danger of sending a moored yacht straight through the picture window. It would be such a shame if Randy's time on the show was to end suddenly, with him being pierced by prow of a boat, like Ming the Merciless without the green blood.
After an unsuccessful audition from Ryan Seacrest's double (that's right, imagine a world where there's more than one of him) we get to see Shannon, a gorgeous six-foot fifteen year-old. It's all going so well until Steven leers that the city of Savannah is "hot, humid and happening, just like your daughter." In retrospect, that's a remark that might have been better received had her entire extended family not been in the room at the time. Of course she gets through and Randy yells "You're coming to Hollywood!" Sadly the audio cuts out before we get to hear him follow it with "Bring a rape alarm."
Amy, our next contestant, lives in a tent in the woods because she can't afford a "$100 a week hotel room" which tells me it's been a while since I checked the prices on Expedia. Apparently, she'd rather be outdoors and happy than indoors and miserable. Ryan listens patiently, trying not to point out that it's also possible to be indoors and happy. She gets three thumbs up, and asks if she can pitch a tent in Hollywood. I think Steven's already one step ahead of her.
Despite his bravado, Joshua will not be going to Hollywood, which is a shame because the world was crying out for a gay redneck Andy Roddick impersonator. However, things are looking slightly better for fifteen year-old Stephanie, who wants to be the next Carrie Underwood. She's full of 'yes ma'am's and 'bless you's which win over two of the three judges. As Randy and J-Lo debate Stephanie's abilities, Steven seems more interested in looking for something inside his hat. That must be where he keeps the roofies.
So far it's all been a little talent heavy, so thank goodness for Mawuena Kodjo from West Africa, who's here to give us a guilty chuckle at those funny foreigners and their comedy accents. Despite the fact that it's perfectly clear what he's saying, we get karaoke subtitles throughout his VT. Sitcoms have canned laughter, talent shows have transcripts for foreigners.
Promising a combination of "funk, energy and confidence", Ashlee has invented a dance called the joy-hop, which looks like someone accidentally shitting their pants on an escalator. It's going to be huge, so remember you saw it here first. Another featured contestant is W.T. Thompson, who's decided that the best way of supporting his six-month-pregnant wife is to give up his job in the prison service and take a punt on a ticket to Hollywood. This couldn't possibly end badly for all concerned.
It's been a while since the producers pandered to the judges, so it's time for a tribute to Steven Tyler. Crowds of attractive young women enthuse about how attractive he is "for an older man". Perhaps, if you're turned on by a portrait of Lily Tomlin, carved into a Stilton rind. This section ends with a tangerine travesty called Erica, who hilariously describes Steven as "my future ex-husband." It's bad enough that she has a crush on a cross-dressing scarecrow, but then she sings an awful Joss Stone song, and I start wondering whether those kidnappers had the right idea after all.
Tonight's final contestant is the imaginatively named Philip Phillips, who works in his dad's pawn shop selling stuffed animals that Norman Bates would dismiss as "a bit creepy". He growls and snarls his way through Superstition, and I'm sure the judges don't know whether to clap or throw holy water at him. Ah, but it's all a prank, because he's actually here to do an interesting guitar-based version of Thriller. Jennifer's excited because Philip has something that "makes people stop and stare." But running through the streets in an outfit made from human skin will do that.