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American Idol 

Booting Simon Cowell was the best idea this show has had in a while.

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Can any true contender triumph without the rigorous prodding of a tough leader? Could the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team have defeated the Russians without Coach Herb Brooks? Could the Indiana Hoosiers have won the 1954 state championship without Norman Dale? Can American Idol find this season’s network-grown pop star without judge Simon Cowell?

“No,” suggest skeptics of FOX’s cast and format overhaul.

Ratings have slipped 12 percent since the (most popular) show (in the world) peaked in 2006 with 38 million viewers, and so, critics speculate, the departure of Simon Cowell may suggest the unraveling of an enterprise, which may turn off loyal viewers.

I think that’s crap. Simon Cowell was a bully — the drunk and inappropriate uncle at a family gathering. By comparison, Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith front man Stephen Tyler are the proud parents flashing thumbs-ups from behind their camcorders. Not only do they spare the horrible insults, but they both offer hugs at different points to star-struck contestants.

Between J Lo’s luminous grace and Tyler’s screeching brand of crazy, I don’t miss the drunk uncle. And you won’t either.

Sure, you could rely on Cowell to say what no one else would say on the rare occasions that it was both necessary and constructive. But while Tyler, J-Lo and Randy Jackson are kind, they also aren’t pushovers.

“Do not quit your day job,” Tyler responds to a frumpy DJ’s attempt at “For the Longest Time.”

“Do not sing into the mic, talk into it.” “It’s a lot more about searching for that eventual winner,” says AI producer Nigel Lythgoe. “The job [of these judges] is to help these kids and help put them on the right path. We’re not just there to chop their legs off from underneath them.”

One of the big changes for the 10th season, in addition to the new panel, is the decision to air the show both Wednesday and Thursday nights. Contestants who make it through the Hollywood round will be invited to Las Vegas to perform Beatles songs in Cirque du Soleil’s Love show.

The challenge for the show may be to keep the focus on the contestants rather than the two superstars on the panel. But in spite of their diva status, Tyler, Lopez and Jackson (now relegated to “the other guy”) will deliver on their pledge to create more Idols.

American Idol, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 pm, FOX


Off the Map
I am a loyal fan of Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and ER, so I have no problem with this new ABC drama blatantly combining all of them. At a clinic in the center of a South American jungle, two dedicated surgeons — one, an Australian hottie — try to hold onto new doctors before they get burned out by a total lack of resources and equipment. The setting and strong acting are enough to carry it. (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 pm)

Fairly Legal
Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi) is a smart, dark-haired babe with designer heels and a propensity for tardiness and inappropriate relationships. This tough, adorable former lawyer is now a mediator and is handed all the cases judges don't want to deal with. It's less banal than it sounds, thanks to strong writing. (USA, Thursdays, 10 pm)

Ask Oprah's All Stars
Before the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network earlier this month, reporters speculated Winfrey had “a lot riding” on its success. But Oprah has built schools and given away cars! She gets a free pass for her new retirement hobby. Viewers who value the guidance of her BFFs — Gayle King, Suze Orman and Dr. Oz — will use what Ask Oprah's All Stars (and the rest of OWN) offer. (OWN - channel 220 on Comcast, Sundays, 8 pm)

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