Reality shows are great equalizers of taste. If you don’t find a sitcom like Parks & Recreation funny, or a fancy drama like Homeland emotionally devastating, then there’s not a lot that those shows can do for you. But reality television works differently. If you want to kick back and condescend and get your thrills that way, then you can. And if you just decide to buy into the hammy melodrama of it all like you’re supposed to, then a show like American Idol, entering its 12th season, with new judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, and Keith Urban (plus “dawg”-spouting dude-bro Randy Jackson, as always) will own your life for the next few months.
Frankly, Nicki is the only actual human up there on the stage. Randy Jackson is clueless and, hey, Mariah Carey is the greatest ever, but she’s most certainly channeling the J. Lo approach of “Well, this is where my weird career is at right now, so I’ll just awkwardly lord over the other judges and big-time everybody as much as possible.” Australian country popper Keith Urban, whose unease on the show is very “white guy out with black co-workers and feeling way weirder than he needs to about it” just needs to go. Might I suggest some cross-promotional synergy between American Idol and Spring Breakers in which Riff Raff, the character James Franco loosely plays in Harmony Korine’s latest, replaces Urban?
Here’s an exchange from Wednesday night’s episode that tells you all you need to know about the non-Nicki judges here: A one-legged cancer survivor who frankly sucks at singing, shuffles away after being rejected. “I feel for that kid,” Urban says, because he’s supposed to. “I do too,” Mariah deadpans like one of Carrie Brownstein’s clueless privileged characters from a Portlandia skit. Meanwhile, Nicki explains that simply by existing in the world and ending up on TV for a few moments, dude is an inspiration. And here’s an exchange from Thursday night’s episode: Nicki says the contestants “lifted [the judges] up,” and Mariah answers, “That’s the point of music,” and shrugs.
So, there’s Nicki in episode one, in a tropical punch sherbet-colored wig and a scrunchy, white power suit encouraging a tragically sincere William Hung-like teen named Shane. He tells the judges he “sing[s] in [his] room, thinking it’s a concert,” and Nicki’s eyes grow big because she straight-up relates. Later on, she tells Shane about how when she was younger she wanted be a city bus driver for some reason, and then looks him in the eyes and says, “You own it.” Meanwhile, Mariah can’t be bothered, Randy Jackson’s way too mean to our man Shane, and Keith Urban is on another TV show. Me? I’m tearing up a little bit.
And don’t forget: The murderous look Nicki gives everyone when Mariah asks for ice for her drink; the side-eye she shoots when Mariah asks if she can keep a auditioning fan’s photos; a Pauly Shore da weaselllll voice she unleashes a couple of times; that she critiques close to half the performers in a ridiculously posh British accent because she’s already bored with this shit. That she tells a screeching Queens kid that his “range is better than Mariah’s.” When she is introduced to the family of auditioning performer Ashlee Feliciano, who have devoted their lives to adopting “medically complex” children, she adorably blurts out, “HI FAMILY.” She calls a contestant “secret squirrel” because he doesn’t share his talents with his family. There are even a few moments when Randy Jackson seems to wander into a nebulously fancy accent and I think we have Nicki to blame for that.
When Nicki Minaj was announced as one of the hosts in the fall, I imagined she would be dismantling the show from the inside, pumping it full of personality and idiosyncrasy, all while pushing hip-hop culture further into the mainstream on its own terms, Jay-Z style. In the first episode, we already experienced the hip-hop-as-pop flashpoint moment when 17-year-old Sarah Restuccio, who lives with her parents on a blueberry farm in New Jersey, expertly performs Carrie Underwood’s “Mama’s Song.” Then, Randy Jackson, who likes to play hardass on this goofy show, asks her to perform another song. In response, Restuccio raps most of Nicki’s “Super Bass.”
Her Nicki fandom confuses Jackson because, although it is 2013, a young woman being into both country and rap does not compute for his demographic-infected brain. Nicki leans forward and explains to Randy that Restuccio is “every little girl”: Here is an Italian-American teen in New Jersey who lives on a farm who fucks with Carrie Underwood and Nicki Minaj with equal levels of adoration. That shouldn’t be a shocker, but it still is to plenty of people, and it was cool to see it pop up on Idol as soon as Minaj joined the show.