It's been unbearably long since the words ''dreadful,'' ''dawg,'' and ''Paula Abdul'' were heard in American households, but that's all about to change. ''American Idol'' returns for its third season on Monday, Jan. 19 (8 p.m., Fox), and new episodes will air Jan. 20 and 21 as well, before the show settles down to its usual Tuesday-and-Wednesday schedule. Besides tears, a brunet Ryan Seacrest, and sore dialing fingers, here's what to look for.
JUDGES AND JURY Undaunted by his world peace-threatening encounter with international judges on last month's ''World Idol,'' Simon Cowell will be back. And judging from Fox's promos, both his attitude (''It was almost like a language I've never heard on Earth,'' he says of one contestant's performance) and wardrobe (those oh-so-snug black T-shirts) will be intact. Abdul and Randy Jackson will also return, with the latter showing off a dramatic 100-pound weight loss. (Good, dawg.)
But the trio may not be alone. Pete Waterman, Cowell's fellow judge from the U.K.'s ''Pop Idol,'' may tag along for midseason episodes, according to ''Idol'' executive producer Ken Warwick. Waterman, a record producer whose credits include Kylie Minogue and British boy band Westlife, has been described by some fans as being even meaner than Cowell. Promises Warwick, ''I'm Simon starts to waffle, he'll step in.'' Just keep that waffle away from Randy.
The third season will continue the tradition of having guest judges, some of whom may even have been famous within the last three decades. Abdul and Jackson told USA Today that Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder are in discussions to appear, but a publicist for the show was unable to confirm that, or to provide other names. Definitely cross Bruce Springsteen off the list, though. The Boss -- who once employed Randy Jackson as a bassist -- told EW that he considers ''Idol'' to be a ''theater of cruelty.'' Wait 'til he sees ''Fear Factor.''
BAND AID The show will expand its use of live backing bands; the middle episodes will feature a house trio of musicians. In addition, big-name guests will sit in, possibly including the Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Funk Brothers, the legendary musicians who played on every Motown hit. In a just world, their presence would humble even Simon.
Less humbling will be the parade of tone-deaf, rhythmless, charisma-free performers that will kick off the season. After the triumphs of gawky Clay and rotund Ruben, ''everyone thinks they've got a chance now, no matter what they look like,'' Warwick says. ''And this year, the credibility of the show is way up there. People know the winners had No. 1 records.'' Well, Kelly, Clay, and Ruben had No. 1 albums; Justin lost his record deal and got to (reportedly) date Nicole Richie.