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'American Idol' : Nice Simon, Mean Randy

"American Idol" bad auditions season kicked off with the most bafflingly clueless yet highly resilient tone-deaf wannabes yet.

That included the world's only female Bert Lahr/Cowardly Lion imitator, an "urban Amish" guy who claims not to watch television and yet knew all about "American Idol," and an Apollo Creed/Luciano Pavarotti impersonator.

But something has changed on America's favorite TV show. Judge Randy Jackson has gotten in touch with his inner sadist this year. Simon Cowell played this strange walk-on guest role as defender of the weak. The two clashed when Randy suggested a vocal-coach contestant give his students back their money, and Simon jumped in with "Enough!" asking Randy whether he'd been abused by a voice teacher in a past life.

Judge Paula Abdul has become so shy and retiring you were left wondering whether they edited out her good stuff or she's finally edited out too many brain cells.

Show host Ryan Seacrest has been reduced to show grief counselor, comforting rejects in the lobby.

Singer Jewel, who also hosts USA Network's country-singer competition "Nashville Star," guest hosted. She was a calming presence. Who wants that on "American Idol"?

In short supply during "Idol's" visit to Minneapolis, as always during early-audition season, were genuinely talented people.

But the "Military Idol" segment was back, including an officer who won the "Reagan Idol" competition -- I know the mind reels -- on the USS Ronald Reagan. His performance was utterly mediocre, but he sailed through. And a female reservist got double points for not only showing up in camouflage but having a husband on active duty in Baghdad. The camouflage came in handy since she accidentally changed keys during her song, but she also sailed through to the next round, as do all "Military Idol" contestants.

Veteran "Idol" watchers know that if producers give you a contestant's backstory, that signals "going through to Hollywood."

Like Matt, whose mother and father did not bother to accompany him to the audition because, Matt explained, the years they've spent supporting him in his pursuit of a singing career have been trying. He said it was hard being there surrounded by other contestants who were there with family. Matt sang "California Dreamin'." The judges sent him through.

"Hello, Mom? Guess what. I made it to Hollywood," Matt said happily into his cell phone.

"You're kidding!" his mom could be heard saying, excitedly. Matt started to cry.

"She's proud of me," he said quietly, kneeling down and weeping.

But this year, producers pulled a big switcheroo on viewers, introducing us to a secretary/singer who was flown to Minneapolis by her boss, Gary. Simon and Randy naturally decided Gary had the hots for her and demanded to meet him.

Gary seemed like a nice guy.

"Gary, you're a nice guy," they said, surprised, like they'd never met one of those before.

"There's a lot of nice people out there," Gary responded.

Then, the judges whacked her.

What did you think about last night's show? Chat with me about "American Idol" today at 1 p.m. ET

By Lisa de Moraes  |  January 17, 2007; 2:44 AM ET
Categories:  "American Idol"  
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