Idol: Now With Fewer Nutjobs, Freaks, Duds

Soon-returning show is dialing down the bad auditions, and giving more airtime to talented singers

That other hope-filled national event culminating in a two-party vote is back: American Idol's eighth season kicks off Jan. 13 on Fox, and just like in past seasons, the producers are shaking things up a bit, which is networkspeak for doing everything they can to stop us from turning off the TV and streaming The Hills on instead.

We've all heard about the biggest change this season, namely how Kara DioGuardi -- a hit-writing machine for the likes of Pink and current AI champ David Cook -- will be joining Randy and his spring-break shirts, Valley of the Dolls, and the last man to speak the truth in America at the judges' table. Everyone's worried this will throw off the delicate three-way balance, especially if DioGuardi turns out to be one of those judge types who's stone-cold sober all the time. Bo-ring!

But what we've only just learned is that the show's producers have trimmed the trainwreck parade that usually dominates the show's audition episodes. Season eight has apparently done away almost entirely with the Hung Quotient: fewer bitchy Grace Slick wannabes, fewer gender-confused types in feathery capes, and fewer deluded losers trotting out their sad little fantasy worlds for us to laugh at. Who will replace them? Good singers, apparently. (We're not the first to suggest this sharp turn in the show's formula may have something to do with Fox trying to seem less mean after the infamous incident of Paula Abdul's biggest fan -- whom the show gleefully mocked back in season five -- overdosing recently outside the singer's house.)

Other changes afoot: There'll be three weeks of auditions instead of four, the final 24 expands to 36, and the audience will now get to select nine of the top 12 finalists. Also, there'll be no Idol Gives Back charity extravaganza -- probably because money feels so 2007 -- which blissfully means no excruciating footage of Ryan Seacrest tromping through some ravaged, soul-deadeningly poor African hamlet looking worried that he'll catch something.

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