PASADENA — The story line has been decided for the 12th season of “American Idol.”
In a recent press conference here at the Television Critics Association press tour, as well as in video excerpts of the program shown to reporters, featuring new “Idol” judges Keith Urban, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj plus returning judge Randy Jackson, judges quipped that this season they were putting the “fun” in dysfunction.
Will it be fun? That remains to be seen. But given the fresh blood and the complicated dynamics at the judges’ table, “American Idol” is poised to be something it hasn’t been for a few seasons: worth watching, at least initially, when the show begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Fox.
The new trio shows a lot more potential to inject sizzle into the aging but still vital franchise than Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez did.
Carey is a pop singer whom many contestants — for better or, mostly, worse — have been emulating since the show’s inception. She has had a remarkable career, with incredible highs (she has sold more than 200 million records worldwide) and serious lows (“Glitter,” anyone?). She is famous for her diva behavior and, based on the video clips, is not shy when it comes to expressing her opinion at the auditions.
Minaj is the contemporary urban hot property with a string of big hits, a kooky fashion sense, and an outspoken personality who has drawn praise from many fellow artists. She appears shrewd and calculating when sizing up the contestants in terms of commercial appeal.
Urban is a gifted musician, singer, and heartthrob who may be able to deliver even more of the huge country music audience than the show already has. In the audition clips, he appears to approach the job thoughtfully, with a sense of humor and a focus on artfulness.
He is also the most succinct of the three, with Carey and Minaj often going on at a length that makes you worry that host Ryan Seacrest won’t be able to keep the trains running on time when the live shows begin. (Minaj also discomfitingly leers at the male contestants in a manner that is no more acceptable than when Steven Tyler did it to the female ones.)
The advance buzz surrounding the show has largely been about reported bad blood between Carey and Minaj, based on a leaked video of the two arguing during the audition stages for this season.
At the TCA press conference, the judges and “Idol” producers chalked the whole thing up to “passionate” personalities and pointed out that differences of opinion are, obviously, part of the singing competition’s DNA.
“It is authentic. There is passion on this crew,” said Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative entertainment, of questions about whether the bickering was staged to drum up publicity. “They disagree about a lot of the talent and about the way to approach the talent. And it’s not just the girls. It’s everybody.”
But in the clips, it is the tension between the women — who are both clearly used to getting their own way — that is the focus, with the laid-back Urban placed between them, genially absorbing the waves of enmity wafting off the two outsize personalities. This is a role he also played in the press conference, as the women again disagreed about their disagreement. Carey: “It was sort of one-sided.” Minaj: “No, it wasn’t.” The Aussie country superstar clearly has deep reserves of patience.
Carey claimed that focusing on the tense moments was an unfair distraction from the contestants. But it’s clear from the clips that, at least until there are actually contestants to focus on, the producers will try to get as much mileage out of any tension between the two stars as they can, thus spurring viewers to choose sides. (Mini Twitter feuds have already erupted between the women’s fan bases, Carey’s “Lambs” and Minaj’s “Barbz” and “Kenz.”) And even though they worked to seem collegial in the press conference and are shown agreeing in some clips — and share a fondness for faux British accents — it appears Carey and Minaj will help the producers in this endeavor.
When asked to express something that they admired about one another, Minaj expounded at length. “I say nice things about Mariah all the time, and I even tell her all the time how much of a fan I am of her. She’s one of my favorite artists of all times, and I think she’s really shaped a generation of singers, and to be on a panel with her, it’s kind of crazy because all these singers that come in, they aspire to be a Mariah Carey in terms of their talent, and in terms of their career length, and so I feel excited to see them see someone who they look up to so much and to be given a chance to sing in front of her and hear her critique.”
Carey, who was suffering from laryngitis, spoke almost as long but essentially managed only to acknowledge that what Minaj said was indeed nice, and that when they worked together on a song on a Carey album early in Minaj’s career — “It’s called ‘Up Out My Face,’ ironically” — that she felt that Minaj was going to “go far.”
Forget about “fun,” it will be interesting to see if this crew can put the “function” in dysfunction.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.