Little excitement on the prairie

Times Staff Writer

Is the idea of a low-key “American Idol” an oxymoron? What happens to the Earth when a juggernaut relaxes? Or when Atlas unwinds? Does the globe topple and shatter?

Impossible as it sounds, that was the vibe on TV’s biggest hit Tuesday night as Ryan Seacrest and the gang took Omaha. Taken as a whole, it felt not like a sloppy night -- the “Idol” machine never cuts corners -- but as if somehow the show’s trademark slowly-growing drumbeat toward the Kodak Theatre had been dialed down a few notches. It was almost as if the team was becoming a bit too comfortable with its place in history. In Omaha we saw Paula Abdul show up late, Simon Cowell almost nonchalantly wave half the night’s contestants (the ones we saw, at least) on to Hollywood, another farmboy drawl about the beauty of the prairie and Seacrest joke about the judges’ overpaid-underworked lives.

The night’s weirdos were restricted merely to an over-enthusiastic Kelly Clarkson fan and a fairly standard-issue trench-coated Goth girl, both of whom Cowell touchingly indulged. The tearjerkingest story was a girl who hadn’t talked to her father in months.

Could it be that Omaha is just not a caldron of high drama? Or has the “Idol” family gotten too used to life in the white-hot spotlight?


Or perhaps, could the show once again be playing with our expectations? After last year’s reputedly off-ish season, the conventional thinking was that in Season 7, “American Idol” would respond to the lag just as would every other show since Aristophanes’ time -- by upping the thrills! Doubling the stunts! Tripling the stars!

On a sitcom, they would be bringing in Jonathan Winters as Mork’s son. On a news show, Dan Rather would suddenly be sharing an intro with Connie Chung and standing in a hurricane. On “Lost,” they would find a polar bear up a tree and forget to push the button to keep the world from exploding.

But on “American Idol” we have thus far been treated to a preseason that is, if anything, a downshift from last year. The formula remains intact but with just a tiny bit less weirdo abuse, a few less-produced novelty segments, no guest celebrity judges and, all in all, slightly fewer reminders about the size, scope and world-shattering import of the whole thing.

Then there’s this possibility: that on “American Idol” -- the universe’s most supremely self-confident and self-aware show -- they are responding to the challenge of how to bolster it by actually turning it down a notch. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe repeatedly has said in interviews that he plans to focus on the contestants more this season, but who could have imagined that he would take things to such extremes? The season will tell whether a smaller production means, in the end, a bigger drama.

And by the way: Based on her performance last night, I am declaring Samantha Sidley the new front-runner -- even though I know it is impossible for an L.A. native to win. Which raises the question: Why is an L.A. girl trying out in Omaha? Was the 405 closed the days of the San Diego auditions?