photo: Michael Becker/FoxEven the most casual "American Idol" viewer knows all about the months-long feud/publicity campaign leading up to this Wednesday's premiere of "American Idol" Season 12, starring new alpha-female judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. The "leaked" TMZ video of their on-set war of (four-letter) words. Mariah's subsequent claim, to Barbara Walters, of Nicki-administered death threats and the need for beefed-up on-set security. Nasty Nigel Lythgoe, "Idol's" executive producer, telling reporters that hapless new middle judge Keith Urban will serve as the "scratching post" in this TV catfight. Yes, before Season 12 even began, this show was starting to look like "The Real Housewives Of Idol," or "Idol Shore," or "Bad Judges' Club." Was this really the new direction for this formerly feelgood, family-friendly show?
Well, after watching Season 12's first full episode, the answer to that burning question seems to be...yes and no. "When you add three incredibly passionate performers to the panel, you know there's going to be a bit of personality conflict," warned host Ryan Seacrest, and Nicki and Mariah's clash of egos/hair/outfits/personal assistants definitely did dominate the premiere's proceedings at New York's Lincoln Center. Within the first half-hour of the show, in fact, they'd squawkily, squeakily bickered about everything from Mariah's diva demand for more ice in her conspicuously branded Coca-Cola cup, to Nicki's decision to wear a distracting drum-majorette hat, to Nicki's familiarity or lack thereof with the dialogue of the film Mean Girls. (Nicki then likened Mariah to Rachael McAdams's villainess character, Regina George, and even Mariah's manager, fellow judge Randy Jackson, had to chuckle a bit.)
At one point, Nicki even called Mariah "something that starts with a B and ends with an itch," although it seemed that Nicki was just snarkily rapping a verse of an old-school Missy Elliott song. The two loud ladies were actually chattering so much the moment they sat down on either side of poor Keith Urban, they didn't even notice when the wild-eyed first auditioner of the day, Michael Buonopane, stomped into the room, clapping his hands and shouting Queen's "We Will Rock You" at them. It was only when Michael broke into some ill-advised reggaeton that they looked up from their argument, but even then, they didn't agree: Nicki gave Michael the big fat "no" he so clearly deserved, but Mariah shrugged and said yes, just to be contrary.
However, this whole she-said/she-said shtick seemed very tongue-in-Nars-rouged-cheek, and done with a heavily falsh-eyelash'd wink. Mimi and Her Minajesty repeatedly giggled and grinned as they side-eyed each other across Keith's table space, and while I hardly got the impression that they became besties and went out for cosmos and mani/pedis after the taping (they'll probably never be more than frenemies, at best), there was never a moment when the show took a genuinely dark turn and I actually feared that Mariah's reportedly newly hired bodyguards would spring into action and rush the set. If Mariah really did hire additional security personnel this season to protect her from the dastardly Nicki, then she obviously wasted her some of her $18 million "Idol" salary on such an unnecessary expense--even if Nicki did quip at the end of the show, it what wasn't exactly a cliffhanger of "Who shot J.R.?" proportions, "I have to strangle one of the divas on the panel, but I won't tell you who..."
Really, the whole Mariah/Nicki rivalry seemed in good fun. It wasn't always fun, of course--it got old, fast, and I am already hoping and praying to the TV gods that Season 12 won't be entirely overshadowed by their crazy quarreling. (If I ever get in the mood for that sort of TV fare, I'll just switch over to Bravo for some hair-pulling "Real Housewives" action, thank you very much.) But it was harmless enough, and by the episode's end, the two women-on-the-verge even seemed to come to some sort of truce, with Nicki musing, "I feel like we gel well in a weird, freaky way," and Mariah actually smiling demurely and admitting, "I agree."
Yes, I am sure there are many TV-trainwreck-loving rubberneckers who were disappointed that Mariah didn't try to rip off Nicki's neon wig, or that Nicki didn't lunge across the table only to be forcibly restrained by middle-man Keith and a SWAT team of bodyguards...but honestly, I was much more disappointed by the lack of STANDOUT TALENT. And really, isn't what "Idol" is supposed to be all about? Not superstar judges and their silly, probably-fake, definitely-overhyped feuds, but the search for the next superstar?
During the entire two-hour episode, only eight of the 41 contestants who received golden tickets to Hollywood had their auditions shown in full, and sadly, few of those auditions were true standouts. Although the cold open of the premiere featured Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, "the pawn shop worker turned into a megastar," crooning his triple-platinum coronation song "Home," followed by a montage of A-list "Idol" alums like Kelly, Carrie, and J.Hud scooping up Grammys, Oscars, and gold plaques galore, I didn't necessarily spot a potential Phillip or Kelly in Wednesday's mix.
Of the contestants who did make it through, ones to watch for during Hollywood Week included Mariah fangirl Tenna Torres, country stunner Christina Isabelle, affable subway busker Frankie Ford, hearing-impaired beauty Angela Miller, Indian classicist Gupreett Singh Sarin (aka "The Turbanator"), and Ashlee Feleceano, a foster-family caregiver with a voice as lovely as her spirit. But will any of these contestants become The Next American Idol? Of that, I am not so sure...
Tune in Thursday to see if the Season 12 talent improves, when the judges blow through Chicago, the Windy City--and, by the looks of Fox's promos, blow up at each other all over again. Ugh. So much for that truce...