''Today was absolutely dreadful.'' That's Simon Cowell talking between long drags on a cigarette in Randy Jackson's windowless, basement-level dressing room at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. It's American Idol's ''Hollywood Week,'' when 173 hopefuls sing in hastily assembled groups, forget the simplest of lyrics, and pick pointless fights like eighth graders. They'll eventually be whittled down to just 24, and judging from Cowell's crankiness, viewers are in for some brutal early episodes when Fox's monster hit returns with a two-night, four-hour premiere at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 16. For starters, aside from a young hottie who reminded Paula Abdul of Justin Timberlake, the boys haven't left much of an impression on the judges today. ''It's interesting having not seen them in a few months,'' says Jackson. ''Some were good, but some of them we couldn't even remember.'' Things got so ugly that earlier Simon looked one contestant right in the eye and cracked, ''You're not going to win. You can leave.''
Of course, as any loyal fan knows, a bad day at the American Idol auditions translates into a dependably great night of TV viewing, as the judges hand down (mostly) soul-crushing verdicts that cause wannabe superstars to run off stage cursing or crying (or some combination of both). While getting amped for season 6 of any show is usually difficult, you'll be hard-pressed to find a devotee who hasn't cleared their calendar of Tuesday- and Wednesday-night plans right up until Idol's May 23 finale. ''No matter how bad or crazed or fantastic anyone was in previous years, every year, someone crazier, weirder, and much more talented walks through,'' says executive producer Ken Warwick. ''It's that dynamic that makes the show work year after year.'' Here are a few more reasons why we're breaking into a herky-jerky, Taylor Hicks-y dance as we await the return of American Idol.
1. There's no obvious front-runner
One girl pulled a tuning fork out of her shoe. Another had a squeaky, helium-high voice that made season 5 urchin Paris Bennett sound like Isaac Hayes. One guy was so obsessive during auditions that he took copious notes about each contestant, his or her song choices, and each judge's reaction. There's even a contender named boy, we hope we're spelling this right Chiquini. The one element that's missing as we enter season 6? A sure thing.
''Occasionally someone like Carrie Underwood or Fantasia walks in,'' Cowell says, ''and you just absolutely know [they] could win. This year, I think it's going to be more like season 1, not as obvious. I really hope that, actually.'' Which is not to say that the judges don't have a couple of early favorites. Jackson cryptically predicts the winner will be ''someone with curly hair,'' while Cowell is eyeing two strong contenders: ''One guy who stands out in the crowd and has what I call the likability factor. He's not what I would call the typical American Idol because he's different... but everyone liked him.'' (Actually, that didn't seem to hurt Ruben Studdard. Or Clay Aiken. Or even Taylor Hicks.) The other is ''one girl who's got an incredible voice... but not much personality at the moment.''
No personality?! No excuse. Serious hopefuls have had five years to study at American Idol University, and they should know that a snooze-inducing persona will buy them a one-way ticket to Crushed Dreamsville. (How's the weather there, Trenyce?) As such, says Idol host Ryan Seacrest, ''this is a very intense year. These are the savviest contestants we've ever seen. There's aggression, intensity, a bit of every man or woman for himself or herself. They don't care about making friends. They want to make money.''
They also want a reaction from Simon, but now they aren't so quick to take his criticism. ''With Simon getting it wrong regarding Taylor, it's ammunition for the contestants,'' says exec producer Nigel Lythgoe. ''If Simon says 'I don't like you,' now they say, 'I don't give a s---. You didn't like Taylor last year.'''