Michael Slezak
January 12, 2010 AT 05:00 PM EST

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

There are hundreds of reasons to not watch American Idol‘s ninth season, and as EW’s resident Idoloonie, I’ve heard just about all of ’em from friends, relatives, and Twitter followers: No Paula, no Idol. Kradison broke the show. I can’t deal with another year of that overzealous table-banger. Simon’s heart isn’t in it. I’m still waiting for the producers to call Mishavonna Henson‘s name for the season 8 Wild Card round.

Okay, so that last one comes courtesy of the voices in my head (not that they don’t have a point), but the fact of the matter is, there are dark storm clouds congregating at the edge of Idol‘s perpetually sunny ratings forecast, not the least of which arrived when Simon simultaneously announced on Monday that he’ll abandon America’s No. 1 talent competition at the end of May, and launch the similar (but not identical) The X Factor on Fox in fall 2011.

Yet instead of panic and mayhem, it was business as usual for the Idol Machine during last night’s Boston-set season premiere, featuring guest judge Victoria Beckham, her peculiarly positioned lace headband, and her all-time favorite adjective ”nice.” In standard operating procedure, Simon delivered the funny, Kara delivered the ”I’d rather get tasered in the eye than hear this woman utter another word” annoying, and Randy delivered (surprise!) nothing of any real consequence. Wannabes got rewarded as much for their sorrow as for their singing. And a few folks proved so darn likable, they scored free round-trip tickets to Hollywood — return flight presumably redeemable during the first half of Hell Week only.

The only real shocker was the somewhat alarming fact that Ryan Seacrest didn’t lead into the opening credits with a dramatic ”This… is American Idol!” What next? A Project Runway premiere without Tim Gunn uttering ”Carry On.” A Bachelor telecast in which Jake doesn’t surreptitiously admire his own abs? Blasphemy, all round!

But in all seriousness, what does it matter that maybe only one or two of the 15 successful auditioners shown last night have a Kristy Lee’s chance at a Grammy of making it all the way to the Top 10? Or that I’m currently more attached to a shocking orange head-wrap than I am to any individual season 9 singer? If I’m hopping aboard an express train that will use as fuel my free time, my emotional stability, and my ability to make plans every Tuesday and Wednesday from January to May, I might as well start by looking on the bright side.

Which brings me to the subject of the best audition of the night — courtesy of Katie Stevens. Her take on ”At Last” contained the kind of smoke and swing (not to mention emotional depth) that few contestants (let alone teenage ones) would be able to pull off a capella. Yeah, the way the producers cut from footage of Katie singing for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother to a shot of her singing to Idol‘s judges was as subtle as a flare gun shot off in a linen closet, but at least in this case, raw talent managed to trump formidable back story. If Katie can do on a big stage what she managed to do in a tiny holding room — delight the judges, bring tears to Seacrest’s eyes — she could turn out to be a contender. I’m just surprised Cecile Frot-Coutaz didn’t hire a skywriter to covey Ryan’s final remark on the poised young woman: ”At 16, Katie Stevens is one step closer to becoming the next American Idol.”

NEXT: Tyler Grady gets it on

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