Our Great National Pastime Returns

American Idol contestant Ben Haar

It’s a Rocky road to fame. That was the message of American Idol’s 2008 premiere, which took us to Philadelphia, a city, as Ryan Seacrest reminded us, that’s the home of the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, and a certain fictional boxer who overcame a speech impediment to make five sequels. Speaking of going the distance, last night began American Idol’s seventh season, and, despite a spate of disheartening news (disappointing album sales, dropped recording contracts, critique from Chris Daughtry), the show is forging ahead like the little … I mean, the freaking huge engine who couldn’t give a flying Phil Stacey about the writers’ strike. It’s a good thing that reality TV writers don’t belong to the WGA, or we’d be missing out on such brilliant between-contestant segues as, “The judges need a dash of beauty. Instead, they’re about to get a dose of Udi.” Given script like that, I was surprised that the panel turned away contestant Paul Marturano and his disturbing dedication to Paula Abdul, which ingeniously rhymed “stalker” with “Peter Falk her.”

Idol had its own fighters last night, including the controversially professional Kristy Lee Cook, who, in addition to already having had a bit of a singing career, trains for cage matches. She also loves horses, though maybe not that much, since she sold her best barrel horse to pay for her trip to Philly. That’s right, she sold out her horse to get to Hollywood. Ain’t that America? I guess I shouldn’t judge; I sold my gerbil for a bus ticket downtown last week, and all my goldfish have been in hiding since I mentioned Paris …

Although there’s been quite a bit of hype about all the changes this year, which promise singers playing real! live! instruments! and fewer guest coaches, the first Idol episode offered only business as usual. You had your tales of adversity: impressive weight loss, invalid parents, a compulsion to wear glitter and sing like Grace Slick. You had your too-loud singing and your too-soft singing, your homegrown ex-child-prodigies and your foreign accents, your too-old contestants and too-young mothers. There were moments of tenderness from the judges as sensitive teenagers wept in defeat and moments of rage as Star Wars fans cursed Simon from beneath their faux Princess Leia coiffures. Or their Princess Leia bikinis, as in the evening’s most bizarre contrivance, a sequence involving the iconic sci-fi S&M costume, a man named Ben, and Paula’s fascination/disgust with his chest hair. (In a stunning coincidence, Ben’s last name? Haar. If you can’t guess, look it up in a German dictionary.)

These audition episodes are the part of American Idol that I hate to love and love to hate, a three-times-a-week, month-long humiliation extravaganza that kind of makes the show what it is. It’s something that other reality TV competitions rush through—the recent Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann, for example, got through this lengthy selection process in its first two hours. It’s more efficient that way, but it’s also, I think, less compelling television. Idol makes me cross my fingers and hold my breath hoping that the sweet kids turn out to be great singers and that the snotty ones get their comeuppance. And I suppose without these first installments, I’d have missed the experience of righteous indignation when the judges mocked Egyptian immigrant Alaa Youakeem and mispronounced his name over and over for what seemed like an eternity (OK, I’d mispronounce it, too—it starts with that ‘ayn thingie I can’t properly say without coughing). Is it bad to love American Idol because it makes me feel morally superior?

So, the show is back, a constant in my life, as predictable and comfortable as the SoCal winter. I would even go so far as to say that watching last night was Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul, or maybe comfort food like the five new unnecessary American Idol ice cream flavors (sadly, no Rocky Road). You can apparently vote for your favorite one—I’ll go out on a limb and say that, for both the ice cream and the singing competition, my money’s on the Cheesecake Diva.