The "American Idol" judges sometimes look bored, like they'd rather be cutting grass with a nail clipper than drinking out of Coca-Cola cups and shattering dreams.
When she's not making insipidly positive comments or clapping as if her fingers were broken, Paula Abdul looks alternately bored or uncomfortable. When he's not bluntly criticizing a contestant's weight or lack of talent with a barrage of superlatives, Simon Cowell appears frustrated with the producers for wasting his time. And frequent swing voter Randy Jackson alternates between the two extremes.
As a result, the judges' comments are, mostly, predictable. For even the most reprehensible, obnoxious singers, Paula has some kind of contrived praise. Simon throws out the word "dreadful" almost as much as Randy addresses contestants with, "Dawg, you did your thing." Collectively, the three judges overuse meaningless words that stand in for detailed critiques; last season's was "pitchy," whereas "American Idol 4"'s word is shaping up to be "affected," a label applied to those performers who appear to lack originality as they mimic more accomplished performers.
But not in St. Louis. During their second "American Idol 4" stop, the judges completely lost it.
During these first few weeks, viewers see a carefully edited collection of the worst singers, with a few of the best thrown in just to keep the series vaguely focused. But the 32 people from St. Louis who made it to Hollywood weren't shown except for brief flashes. And those who never had a chance of making it to Hollywood were pushed to the front of the pack by producers to create some entertaining television.
Usually, we know what to expect from this, and St. Louis included plenty of familiar footage. After a contestant named Aa'shia sang for the three judges, Simon Cowell compared her voice to one under the influence of helium sucked from a balloon. Randy was more blunt: "Like the Chipmunks, almost." And what did Paula have to add? "She's different, she's unique. I like her."
While the judges did slip into their familiar grooves in St. Louis, they quickly derailed. The blank stare was the name of their game in DC, but here, they giggled uncontrollably throughout many of the auditions, and sometimes just broke down.
Paula spent much of her energy attempting to conceal her laughter. When one contestant said, "I really sound like Brian McKnight," Paula choked on her water and nearly sprayed it all over the table.
Joining the rat race
But the night's crowning moment came during a 16-year-old contestant's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Stifling laughter throughout the song, the three judges were clearly aghast. After Simon said her performance "was, honestly, excruciatingly awful," it appeared to be yet another 1-2-3 dismissal, with Simon being brutal, Paula complimenting something totally irrelevant ("Your toenails look so nice, sweetheart!"), and Randy flipping a coin to see if he was feeling it or not.
But then Paula offered some unusual career advice. "Have you heard of voiceover work?" Randy started chiming in with ideas: "Cartoons, animation. Doing voices. ‘Rugrats,’ or dogs, or whatever."
Simon couldn't believe this. "So Jessica … is going to walk out of here and the advice you've given to her is that you can do a voiceover for a rat. Charming. Charming. I mean, great advice."
Sorry, Jessica. Spinning around in her chair, her knee pulled up to her chest, her eyes rolling, Paula said, earnestly, "Do you know how hard it is to get an agent and get commercials for that? It's great."
Visibly upset, and totally ignored by the judges, Jessica turned and walked out of the room, but Paula didn't even flinch. "Do you know how hard it is to get a rat job?"
As Randy said "thank you" to Jessica through his laughter, Simon high-fived a still-spinning Paula and, through hysterical laughter, said, "You actually carried that on!"
"Do you know how hard it is to be a rat? Oh, God," Paula said.
Whatever happened during those few minutes, these weren't the judges we're used to seeing. And compared to the first two hours and its parade of blank stare-inducing contestants, this was a welcome change.
Even though the judges don't show up until the final days of an audition, their days must be grueling, especially when faced with the more delusional singers who producers push through as ratings bait for the first few weeks of the season. Maybe the judges had just been pushed past their breaking point. Or maybe they've learned to break through their "characters" and let us see what they really think about the process.
Two and a half years ago, the United States was introduced to "American Idol" via clips of judge Simon Cowell telling awful singers how truly horrible they were. His scathing insults quickly became legendary, and a phenomenon was born, with Simon at the helm.
Still, the "American Idol" audience seems to resent any criticism, constructive or not. The series premiere included a massive group of auditioners in Washington, DC, screaming, "Simon, you suck." And every time Simon Cowell opens his mouth during the semifinal and final rounds, the crowd tends to boo him.
It's an odd relationship, particularly since Simon often is the only rational, honest voice, but it’s a relationship Simon cultivates by being pretentious and offensive. He's also frequently caustic toward his fellow judges.
But in St. Louis, we saw that the three are all really on the same page, and they know that this part of the competition, at least, is a big joke — one in which they play a central role. They did their best to pretend otherwise, but their efforts failed.
After a montage of glass-shattering singing, the show cut to a clip of Simon looking dejected. "I don't like music anymore," he said.
He might hate music, but he, Paula, and Randy clearly love their jobs.
is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.