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Changes on 'American Idol' and 'Big Love'

Dale Roe

Two eagerly anticipated series are returning to television HBO's polygamy drama "Big Love" and Fox's reality music competition "American Idol."

The two shows couldn't be more different: One is based on a fairly distasteful premise and focuses on an outspoken, authoritarian leader with a mild messianic complex — reviled by his enemies and catered to by sycophants — who is surrounded by somewhat loopy women; the other is "Big Love."

I kid Simon Cowell.

"Big Love" bows first, Jan. 10 at 8. To be honest, I've never been a regular watcher. The setting is off-putting and the show never seemed to me as compelling as, say, "The Sopranos" (despite the fact that Harry Dean Stanton's Roman Grant was, for all intents and purposes, a gangster and the show is moving farther into "Sopranos" territory this season with the opening of a Mormon-friendly Indian casino. Can Bada-Bingo be far behind?)

But the show has enjoyed a steady stream of critical and award recognition: Last season it was nominated for a best series Emmy (it lost to AMC's "Mad Men"). It's up again for Best Television Drama, and its star Bill Paxton for Best Actor at the Golden Globes on Jan. 17 (actress Chloe Sevigny got a nod, too, for her portrayal of Bill's second wife, Nicki). In addition to a growing "Mad Men"-like buzz and an intriguing ad campaign, fanatical interest from a senior-aged reader has led me to take a second look. And I like what I see. (Caution: Thar be mild spoilers ahead.)

The new season looks to move further into the examination of Utah politics as Bill weighs whether to become the next prophet or to run for state senator. The fallout from that decision will have major ramifications on Bill's already-tense relationships with his trio of wives. The casino plotline holds a lot of promise, and the power vacuum left by prophet Roman's passing is rich with dramatic possibility.

Meanwhile, there's been a shake-up over at "American Idol," too (the show returns Tuesday). Former judge Paula Abdul announced her departure via Twitter in August, after an unsuccessful bid to renegotiate her contract (it was reported that Abdul was demanding $20 million). Abdul wrote, in a string of surprisingly lucid tweets, "With sadness in my heart, I've decided not to return to #IDOL. I'll be miss nurturing all the new talent, but most of all being a part of a show that I helped from day1 become an international phenomenon ... What I want to say most is how much I appreciate the undying support and enormous love that you have showered upon me. It truly has been breathtaking, especially over the past month. I do without any doubt have the BEST fans in the entire world and I love you all."

Apparently it takes a village to replace Abdul. Perhaps because of the creeping-up-on-final-auditions timing of her departure, "Idol" producers inserted a series of guest judges for the audition rounds before choosing daytime talker Ellen DeGeneres as Abdul's permanent replacement. The addition of these guest judges — including Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige, Joe Jonas, Kristin Chenoweth, Shania Twain, Neil Patrick Harris and former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham — could make the audition rounds (already among the show's most popular episodes) even more interesting.

I'm not entirely sold on DeGeneres. I might be biased because I anticipate missing Abdul's loopy and often incoherent, though always entertaining, rambling, but I'm not sure what a comedian brings to the "Idol" table — remember Brian Dunkelman?

Exactly.

I'm afraid the change is going to put even more emphasis on the judges and less on the contestants, where it belongs. Still, it should be fun to see the effect this will have on Simon Cowell — there's no way bickering with a bantering bantam such as Ryan Seacrest has prepared him to spar with the clever and professional DeGeneres.