Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell by Michael Becker/Fox
Most years, I find myself cringing at the very spectacle that drives zillions of people to their TV sets: the American Idol auditions, a circus of exhibitionistic freaks, delusional show-offs, sad sacks all too willing to be mocked, characters who looked like they woke up too late for Mardi Gras, and the usual gamut. And the occasional promising singer.

Maybe it's strike fatigue, or the fact that I've just sat stupefied for two weeks watching the far more insipid antics of the preening judges Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba, who've quickly worn out their welcome as the dim-bulb guiding lights of the so-far-misleadingly titled Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann. But Tuesday night's launch of the seventh season of American Idol, with two hours spent sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of tryouts in Philadelphia, felt more entertaining and less punishingly cruel than in years past.

If anything, the would-be Idols generally behaved worse than the judges, even the notoriously puckish Simon Cowell, who tried to let some of the most hopeless cases off easy. The producers forced us to spend nearly seven minutes (felt like 70) in the company of Alexis Cohen, a 23-year-old Janis Joplin/Grace Slick wannabe whose early mantra was, "Always be victorious." She wasn't, and neither were her glitter-festooned eyebrows. Simon found her performance "a bit possessed," and Alexis kept her cool as she left the audition room. Until she realized her time in front of the camera was almost up, so she desperately milked it with the usual parade of bleeped profanities and screaming taunts: "If I could legally moon [Simon], I would," she bragged, thrilled to be getting her 15 minutes in front of a national audience that will happily forget her until she becomes part of the losers' montage come finale time in May. "I'm going for actressing," she declared, a warning to all.

One of the more memorable oddballs was an Egyptian nicknamed Yuka, who seemed like an apparition out of a Borat sequel. "I want to love a girl from the hair to the nipple," said the self-proclaimed "Sexy Face," who sang from the catalogue of "Mr. The Bee Gees." The judges reacted in stunned silence, but weren't even remotely mean. I take no pride in admitting I laughed along with Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul at the absurdity of local tour guide James Lewis, whose basso non-profundo and odd phrasing of "Let My People Go" was as comical as his expressionless reaction to their reactions.

"What are they thinking?" people often wonder. Boils down to this peeved observation by Simon: "All because that fat lump wants to be on TV," his unamused response to a guy named Ben Haar, who had his hairy chest waxed after arriving in a harem costume that revealed too much of his out-of-shape frame. Well, duh, Simon. Of course it's all about being on TV. The entire process at this point is aimed at people who probably have their TVs tuned most nights to the swill of VH1 and figure if the people in those shows can be considered "celebrities" (a word that has lost all currency lately), why not us?

How else to explain the past-his-prime Milo, a clown who fancies himself inspirational as he sings an original creation, "No Sex Allowed"? (Does he know he's on the Fox network?) Or the Paula Abdul fan who composed an icky ditty with numerous rhymes to "stalk her" - as in "If she were a doggie, I'd walk her," or "If I were Columbo, I'd Peter Falk her," unfortunately not being cut off before he got to "If she were a bathtub, I'd caulk her."

And to think I could have been watching The Biggest Loser: Couples.

Even with these excesses, the night was less obnoxious than usual, and for every Alexis, there was someone like Temptress Brown, a 16-year-old middle linebacker with a seriously ill mother in a wheelchair. (A sob story will get you on camera every time.) She earned a group hug, and a rare appearance outside the audition room by the judges, as they crushed her dreams as gently as possible.

The first episode was bookended by winners: Joey, who has lost 200 pounds and claimed, "I don't have to fake the funk," and Brooke, a beautiful nanny who's never seen an R-rated movie. Simon offered to take her to the dark side, but so far, she has wisely resisted.

Because she could always end up like Christina, a pathetic Star Wars fan (with Princess Leia hairpieces) and a self-declared "goofball" who went ballistic after the judges halted her strained performance of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." As the episode ended, she was still railing against American Idol's tendency to let through "the same normal-looking pop people." Don't cry for Christina. At least she got on TV.

For me, I'm counting the weeks until the competition actually begins.