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Whether or not new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will find and foster an actual pop star or create the ratings-generating buzz of their predecessors remains to be seen. (The season opener in the United States was the lowest-rated premiere since its first season and was down 13% compared with last year, but with an audience of 26.2 million it easily trounced the competition.) But as soon as they took their seats, it was as if the elephant in the room finally ambled out of view - for the first time the immature fumblings and flailings of the contestants as they fight to find their feet will not be mirrored by the judges' table.
After the bipolar antics of last year's woefully mismatched panel (a mealy-mouthed Ellen DeGeneres, a manically flirtatious Kara DioGuardi) Tyler's confident humour and Lopez's natural grace proved such a blessed relief that the big question of the evening - can the show survive without Simon Cowell? - was quickly eclipsed by the realisation that the show finally has a panel of judges who are not actually physically painful to watch.
Veteran judge Randy Jackson, and virtually everyone else, has said repeatedly that Cowell is irreplaceable and that is certainly true in terms of biting wit and his signature air of jaded impatience.
But more than that, Cowell relentlessly viewed performers through the gimlet eye of a producer, the money man who saw success as a semi-predictable marketing formula rather than an artist's ability to balance the passion of self-expression with the dedication and self-control necessary to succeed.
To Cowell, even passion was simply part of a grander calculation.
Tyler and Lopez, on the other hand, are performers, time-tested and road-tested, who have experienced failure as well as success, and the difference in how they perceive talent made the show more interesting than it has been in a while.
Although they seem to understand, as Cowell did, that false hope is not an act of kindness, they may see things that past judges did not.
- American Idol screens at 8.30pm Fridays on TV2.