No one ever accused Simon Cowell of being compassionate — until this year.
Three weeks into the new season, the resident ‘‘American Idol’’ grinch has been sugarcoating critiques of mediocre and helplessly tone-deaf wannabes.
‘‘He’s nice for three weeks, and then suddenly he’ll flip and he’ll turn out being [a] bloody horror again,’’ said ‘‘Idol’’ executive producer Ken Warwick. ‘‘Wait until we get into this next batch, you know, the top 12.’’
A prime example of Cowell’s benevolence was when he gave the thumbs-up to a sweet young mother who had a new lease on life after a terrible car accident, but no real shot at cracking the finalists’ ranks. It was an uncharacteristic move for the blunt record exec famous for his brutal, dream-crushing honesty.
Then again, any act of Cowell kindness would seem significant following the outrage he provoked during tryouts last season with vicious attacks an assortment of earnest, defenseless contestants, even comparing one singer to a ‘‘bush baby.’’
That’s not to say Cowell doesn’t still have moments of stinging criticism on Fox’s top-rated talent circus. He spared few brave souls — including camera hams and teens with delusions of grandeur — from the cold hard truth, but seemed to fully return to form on Wednesday’s final audition show.
After 25-year-old Joshua Moreland serenaded Paula Abdul with a love song he’d written, Cowell sniped: ‘‘It was a horribly over-the-top, corny, revolting audition.’’ Moreland looked as if he’d been slapped in the face.
He was equally mean to an unassuming woman who claimed her voice was a gift from God, asking: ‘‘Does He have a return policy?’’
Cowell seemed to delight in needling targets such as an abstinence-promoting high school cheerleader (whom he sent through to Hollywood, ostensibly in the interest of good TV). But he joined Abdul and Randy Jackson in consoling 16-year-old Temptress Brown after telling her — in the kindest, most gentle way — that she’s ‘‘not a great singer.’’
‘‘If there’s anybody that comes in that he can honestly see does have a problem — a genuine problem — then he will be nice to them,’’ Warwick said. ‘‘He gets nothing to gain out of beating up on kids who are disadvantaged, genuinely having a real tough time with their life. All they need is to walk into that room and have them absolutely murder them.’’
So why send someone who’s far from fair game into that room in the first place?
‘‘We have to show a fair slice of the talent or not that turns up in that town,’’ Warwick said. ‘‘And that’s the only answer I can give to you.’’
‘‘American Idol’’ has had a slight ratings dip this year, premiering to 33 million viewers and slipping below 30 million per episode in the last two weeks (it still remains the most-watched show on TV). Last season the show premiered to 37 million viewers and only dipped below 30 million for one audition episode.
The show has dug deeply into contestants’ back stories to foster a stronger connection with viewers. Producers said ‘‘Idol’’ suffered last year by giving too much air time to celebrity mentors who had personal projects and concert tours to promote.
True to its word, the show upped the ante in introducing new hopefuls. It also upped the melodrama with profiles of single twentysomething moms (with one or two kids in tow) and an 18-year-old guy with who lives in his car (and sings with a faux British accent).
‘‘Idol’’ watcher Jessica Shaw said it was backstory overkill.
‘‘They’re swinging a little too far in the other direction and we’re learning a little bit too much about people that it turns out can’t carry a tune,’’ said Shaw, who writes for Entertainment Weekly magazine.
‘‘It’s like, ‘I don’t care about you if you grew up on a farm and you’re a single mother and, you know, you wear ... horrible acid-trip clothing if you can’t carry a tune.’ Because ultimately that’s what the show is about.’’
Shaw gleefully mused that ‘‘all the claws are gonna come out once they hit Hollywood.’’ She considered Cowell’s unpredictably hot/cold behavior a part of his ‘‘genius.’’
‘‘He can sort of tweak his persona and change it up a little bit,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s only gonna make the show more interesting to watch.’’
Next week, 164 hopefuls will take part in the anxiety-soaked Hollywood phase of the contest.
Host Ryan Seacrest promised ever more drama and said ‘‘the judges will be ruthless on the contestants.’’
The auditions are over. Let the real games begin.