The start of a the new American Idol season is sort of like the start of baseball season. I feel a sense of optimism and excitement, partially because it's just something new to watch, partially because I can be a sucker for things American like idols and pastimes. But then, I realize how long the damn season can be, and how full of losers. There were rumblings in the press that this season of Idol would be different, as reviews and ratings declined a bit in its sixth installment. Producer Nigel Lythgoe discussed some potential changes with Variety such as new graphics, the allowance of instruments and a fresh look at the stories behind the contestants. It seems like this is all coming later on, though, because the season debut pretty much mimicked all other open audition episodes. It's maybe a good thing, though, that there was no additional focus on the contestants' back stories, because the show has never shied away form highlighting someone's sick mother, disabled child, rough upbringing or what have you. Idol however is not really under any real impetus to change. People will always watch the show, especially now, when the WGA strike has all but eliminated viewers' alternate options. It's still harmless good fun: Randy wears stupid shirts, Paula seems to be on the same medication as usual, and Simon spits harsh truths and then gets all sexy when he's being playful. Ryan Seacrest gets a little more humanlike with each season (he's realized that it was a good bet to trade in see-through shirts for pretending to have the hots for all women over 70). And the same cast of characters rolls through, from the genuinely talented to the attention whores to the butts of cruel jokes to the bitter and delusional. And, no one ever knows which door is the exit. One of the last people to try out in the premiere was a girl named Christina, a self-proclaimed dork who wore Princess Leia buns pinned onto her hair. She was almost a mini hero of mine--I like a self-aware dork--until she let her bad self-esteem and anger get the better of her after she failed the audition. The one move the producers made that was interesting was letting her rant on the generic contestants play through the end of the episode as the winners jumped for joy. "Everyone looks the same. They need something different for this show," she roiled. It's true, but don't we say this every year? Yet we still watch. I've stuck with Idol for seven seasons, and sometimes I'm not sure if it's for reasons other than the fact that it's simply there and I don't mind being one of the millions of drones who watch. But it brings lesser emotional returns with each season, so we can hope that the promised changes will do it good. I'm glad it's back, because this strike is making my Tivo very lonely, but I'm gladder still that the FOX execs decided not to add on more hours per week in light of the strike. Only four hours a week is a lot of restraint. Grade: C Stray observations: --A friend of mine is convinced that the Egyptian fellow with the gap teeth faked his whole persona and that he's actually from Cincinnati. --I felt sorry for Alexis, the gravel-voiced gal from Allentown, until she demonstrated that she didn't know that Billy Joel in fact sang the song "Allentown," not Bon Jovi, and she responded to some rather decent feedback from the judges with an inexplicable TV-time-hogging tirade. --It's not fun to watch the really bad auditions unless the auditioner is a jerk, hence I never enjoy moments with people like James, the fellow in the mustard suit who sang like he was deaf. --Something I would like to see one of these seasons is a look at what the pre-audition process is like--what do these people do all day while waiting in the stadiums? And which of the no-talents or attention-seekers get let through, and why? There are usually one or two moments per episode when I want to make out with Simon, and tonight it definitely happened when he cut off that bikini-wearing guy halfway into the first bar of "Dontcha."