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Can J.Lo's star power save a falling Idol?

With a revamped formula, a new panel of judges and exciting new talent pool (from auditions in the louche-fabulous New Jersey) American Idol is back on the air.

While the 10th-season premiere last week had the biggest ratings drop in Idol's history, producer Nigel Lythgoe is, nonetheless, "thrilled and delighted."

Media and fans expressed mixed reactions, but that doesn't seem to matter now with the show in sharp decline, a decline related to two years of overhauling the team of judges, starting with the endearingly distressed Paula Abdul.

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Abdul's exodus seemed to sour judge Simon Cowell for good. He sat last year with the abominable Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres as if empanelled with stool samples, so palpable was his distaste.

Predictably, Cowell left too, and here we are. (His production company is launching a U.S. version of The X Factor this fall, and he is expected to be a judge on that show.)

He is missed - his legendary meanness, particularly.

Cowell's gently caustic remarks, always prefaced with an anxious disclaimer ("I'm just trying to be honest") were not always accurate or constructive, but they were stylish - and style matters on a show so dedicated to the dreariness of the American dream, as articulated through a contestant's passable interpretation of Jesus, Take the Wheel.

Cowell's tone, his presentation was world-weary - one was reminded of an exhausted, affronted Joe Orton (as played in a note-perfect performance by Gary Oldman) in 1987's Prick Up Your Ears, telling his histrionic lover, "Listen to the dialogue, dear."

This sort of absolutely dry English affect was Cowell's strong suit, and without it, the show is wanting something significant.

Can Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler fill this absence?

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Tyler brings back some of Abdul's excessive enthusiasm: This week he sang along with contestants, showered them with love and flirted outrageously in a way that made one uncomfortable, given his very poor drag-impression of Jane Fonda.

Lopez brings the star power: After years of having to pretend Abdul, a fair choreographer and bad singer, was red-carpet material, it is a pleasure to see a real celebrity, who is aloof and amiable, as celebrities tend to be with the little, and in this case, nakedly desperate, people.

Randy Jackson has taken it up a notch, after mumbling irritably through last year's debacle. At one point, he lifted up his shirt and rubbed his belly, as if enjoying himself for the first time since DioGuardi started pontificating and, worse, flirting with the two aghast men on the panel.

Most of all, because of a number of unspoken yet obvious personal issues, the atmosphere the former judges emitted was like that of an alcoholic family at the dinner table: crackling with tension, anxiety and the ominous sense of the other shoe in mid-fall.

The new show is relaxing in comparison: I enjoyed wholeheartedly feeling freedom from fear as ragingly ugly, talentless people sang with impunity.

If the panelists are new variations on a cautious theme (above all, never let it be known this entire show is a travesty that has nothing to do with actual creative genius, except for Fantasia Barrino, of course), the contestants are the same freaks and violin players they always have been.

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The auditions ping-ponged between grotesques, aggressively caterwauling and demure troubled men and women, singing with a view towards a movie of the week some day. (One of Idol's most hideous contestants, Danny Gokey in the 2008 season, kept trying to parlay his singing, combined with his wife's recent and tragic death, into a slogan or concept he called "From Tragedy to Triumph.")

The standouts last week were Jacee Badeaux, a chunky 15-year-old New Orleans contestant, who sings with the sweet ease of Mel Tormé, and Paris Tassin, also from New Orleans, who is the young single mother of a special-needs child and who sings (in this weird echo chamber) like Carrie Underwood if you squint your ears, so to speak.

What stood out the most? Jennifer Lopez's great beauty, and the high spectacle of her scratching tears from her eyes with long, white talons, as Tassin sang.

Later, Lopez would find Tassin and her daughter in the hallway and slowly approach them, bundled in her deluxe couture, her hair flowing like hot, precious metals.

"Your mama did real well," she told the baby. She then, fleetingly, bestowed a glancing touch on them and drifted away as, I am sure, they were struck still by this blessing.

The astonishing Lopez did stoop to conquer: Her kindness (all the more engaging for its chilly context) seems to insist that brute judicial honesty is neither refined nor necessary.

"It's a different kind of energy now," Lopez told an interviewer this week.

"Now bring my fur and my car around," she snapped. (This is pure conjecture, but I'm just trying to be honest.)

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