The original singing competition, American Idol, returned for its 11th season Wednesday in a bid to prove its ratings dominance over upstart rivals, The X Factor and The Voice. Did the "hopeful" first episode — which featured judges Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, and Randy Jackson critiquing contestants in Savannah, Georgia — start the season off right? Here, four burning questions:
1. Have the new judges learned how to judge?
In a word, no, says Jodi Bradbury at The Christian Science Monitor. Last year, newly appointed judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler reinvigorated the show, but the appeal of her warmth and his "uncensored wackiness" quickly dissipated. As the season unfolded, Tyler "all but checked out" and Lopez failed to "honestly critique a contestant." And judging from Wednesday's premiere, the two are back in equally lousy form. Lopez's constant proclamation that contestants gave her "goosies" — her "rather grating term for goose bumps" — and lauding of trite auditions foreshadows another year of critique-less competition. As for Tyler, when he wasn't "in overdrive in the creepy-old-man-who-leers-at-young-girls department," he seemed "slightly dazed."
2. Have we reached music competition saturation?
Idol remains "the singing show to beat," says Scott Collins at the McClatchy-Tribune, noting that its ratings actually climbed in its first Simon Cowell-less season last year. But the grand, bombastic X Factor (which turned its competitors' every performance into a full-on production number) has created "a newly competitive landscape." And Idol's off to a slow start: Wednesday night's premiere had the biggest year-to-year ratings drop in the show's history, plummeting 27 percent from 2011. The glut of rivals is clearly a factor, says James Hibberd at Entertainment Weekly. With The X Factor, The Voice, The Sing Off, and America's Got Talent, singing competitions now clutter the TV schedule year around. Idol may not be appointment viewing anymore.
3. Have we already seen the next American Idol?
In keeping with Idol's "tradition of saving the best for last," Wednesday's premiere concluded with the startlingly talented 20-year-old Phillip Phillips, says Bradbury. His "raw, emotional" version of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" was so impressive that he was granted an encore, says Adam Graham at MTV. The acoustic guitar, "Southern-fried, front-porch" rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" he chose "would have ripped the screen door off the audition room, if there was one to be ripped off." Among several promising contenders — the implausibly soulful 15-year-old Shannon Magrane, the 17-year-old Michael Jackson-in-training David Leather, Jr. — Phillips was the standout. "Phillip Phillips: Remember that name. As if you can forget it."
4. Is Idol done searching for the next William Hung?
The Idol audition rounds are as famous for ridiculing tone-deaf, delusional hopefuls as they are for spotlighting jaw-dropping talent, says Lisa de Moraes at The Washington Post. Setting the bar low was William Hung's notoriously off-key and spastic rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" in Idol's third season. Yet Wednesday's season premiere was notably short on trainwrecks. "There were fewer crazies than one had expected," says Chris Matyszcyzk at CBS News. Perhaps Idol's producers have caved to criticisms that they've overplayed the "freak appeal" in seasons past. In any case, we should welcome what seems to be a "new, serious phase for Idol."