American Idol -- TV Review

Ah yes, winter is in the air. The birds have flown south. The Los Angeles air is unseasonably warm. And one Simon Cowell has tossed out the ceremonial first nasty slur.

Indeed, "American Idol" season has arrived, and just in time to save the American economy (or at least Fox's). Season 8 of the Series That Ate Television kicked off Tuesday with a two-hour extravaganza of megahype, self-promotion, self-delusion, aural crimes against nature and the occasional promising voice.

We also got our first gander at the much-anticipated fourth judge as Kara DioGuardi joined Simon, Paula and Randy on the judgment firing line. The early read on Kara is that she's going to go out of her way, at least initially, to fit in. There wasn't a lot of her going against the grain or her cohorts on Night 1, leaving viewers wondering why "Idol" needed a fourth judge, anyway. Oh yeah: because the show has seen erosion and needs to shake things up.

Kara or no Kara, the opening "Idol" salvo didn't look like much of a rejiggering, which no doubt promises to be more theoretical than actual since one doesn't fix that which isn't really broken. The gang was in Phoenix. Host Ryan Seacrest was more smiley than ever. Simon proved to be in midseason contempt form. Paula often appeared -- hmmm, how to say this without getting sued? -- as if she had been nipping at a flask. Randy struggled to connect and rise above his punchy colleagues.

It resulted in an estimated 30.1 million viewers in preliminary national numbers from Nielsen and a 15% dip in young-adult viewership from the year before. But again, there didn't appear to be much alteration in the formula aside from the ballyhooed fourth wheel. Those who successfully score a Hollywood invite all seem to embody the same finger-snapping rhythmic pop vocal style. One helped her case by dressing in a very skimpy bikini, inspiring even Simon to gulp.

It all built to a cloyingly melodramatic denouement in which a blind contestant presented himself before the persnickety panel, white cane and all. Would Simon cruelly tell the dude to "see his way out"? Uh, no. It turned out the guy could carry a tune just fine, and now "Idol" has a tasty little underdog story to carry it for what could be a good long while.

Mawkish is, after all, what "American Idol" does best. Perhaps that whole tweaking-of-the-concept thing will become more noticeable down the road. Or not.

Airdate: 8-10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13 (Fox)
Production: FremantleMedia North America, 19 Television and Fox
Executive producers: Simon Fuller, Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz
Creator: Simon Fuller
Co-executive producer: Charles Boyd
Supervising producers: Patrick Lynn, Megan Michaels
Producers: Norm Betts, Sam Brenzel, Ron Deshay, Robert Gustafson
Director: Ken Warwick
Supervising editor: Bill DeRonde
Music supervisor: Robin Kaye
Judges: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi
Host: Ryan Seacrest