Here we go again. Ryan Seacrest hyping "the journey that defines a nation," Randy Jackson settling in as the "resident dawg" as if nothing had ever changed. But change is the new constant in the overly cluttered world of TV singing competitions, and as the first and most successful of the genre, Fox's American Idol, returns for its 12th season with back-to-back nights of two-hour audition episodes Wednesday and Thursday (8/7c), a mostly new panel of celebrity judges settles in for their first public judgment.
Initial impressions from a 45-minute clip reel of early highlights: colorful Nicki Minaj steals the show with her bright wigs and spitfire personality, flirtatious and playful, while the more aloof Mariah Carey sighs at her fellow diva's antics as if she's a pesky gnat, only perking up when a veteran participant of "Camp Mariah" comes bearing pictures, appealing to her ego. Country music's likeably unassuming Keith Urban can't help but be overshadowed in this company as he sits between the bickering ladies, and while he quips after one bout, "I feel like a scratching post," allegations of an actual claws-out feud seem, for now, overstated.
The freak-show aspect that used to typify early Idol audition rounds appears to be once again dialed back, though a few delusional sorts still manage to squeeze through (and from the evidence of these clips, they're let down easy, and many get a hug from Nicki). The emphasis is on strenuous and often effective heart-tugging, most memorably in the case of a Cuban-born 21-year-old with a debilitating stutter that magically vanishes when he sings.
Having the stage to itself for a few months — NBC's The Voice isn't back until late March — may help American Idol temporarily overcome the singing-show fatigue we've been experiencing lately. (If only Simon Cowell would get over his ego, concede what a dismal failure The X Factor is in this country, and return to the show that deservedly made him famous and Fox a fortune.) Still, when the 45 minutes Fox made available were up, I wanted to see more, and that's a good sign.
Some other Wednesday highlights made available for review:
We're used to Tessa being the voice of wry reason on ABC's wildly stylized Suburgatory (9:30/8:30c), so it's fun watching Jane Levy go berserk for a change, when Tessa's adverse reaction to pain meds after wisdom-teeth surgery sends her into fits of paranoid hysteria.
Such displays are nothing new for FX's gaudy, bloody American Horror Story: Asylum (10/9c), which takes some major narrative leaps in continuing the stories of Kit and Lana outside the walls of Briarcliff, and poor Sister Jude still trapped within. Her new nemesis, played by a familiar face to regular Horror Story viewers, is the sort who revels in women-behind-bars shtick, with ripe dialogue (from Ryan Murphy) like, "Babycakes, I'm only just starting to toy with you." Only one more week and we'll all be set free from this madness.
As a companion piece to Syfy's Ghost Hunters, starting its ninth season (9/8c), the channel exploits the current cable craze for excavating gold by sending paranormal investigators to a long-abandoned, but about to be reopened, Ghost Mine (10/9c) in Oregon. I wish I could report they unearth a mother lode of spooky discoveries, but the tepid first hour feels an awful lot like they're trawling, slowly, for fool's gold.
The League's Nick Kroll plays comic chameleon in his new Comedy Central sketch-fest Kroll Show (10:30/9:30c), and while his posse of famous friends is impressive — Ed Helms and Adam Pally are among the guys male-bonding in a running gag titled "Sex in the City for Dudes," ex-Saturday Night Live star Jenny Slate co-stars with Kroll (in drag) as incompetent publicists both named Liz in a tired celeb-reality parody — you can't help get the sense they're having more fun than we are.
Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!