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Maybe it’s just because the folks at American Idol are making a deliberate attempt to focus on the strong performers — rather than the sideshow wannabes — in these early open audition shows, but the new season of the hit Fox show seems to be lacking in the humor and drama that made it an instant hit in 2002.

Wednesday’s episode of AI highlighted this problem, as 12 of the 19 featured auditioners in Kansas City were whisked on to the Hollywood round without much discussion or dissent among the judges. In fact, of those 12 golden tickets handed out, only a pair of them were not unanimous decisions by the panel.

Where are the spats between Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell ? No name-calling or judges walking out in a huff because they disagree about a particular hopeful. And new judge Kara DioGuardi appears to be a Randy Jackson clone, albeit a better-dressed one.

In spite of the show’s nicer, blander approach (at least in the editing room), there were a couple of auditioners and storylines worth mentioning.

• Last year’s bright-eyed, dreadlocked finalist Jason Castro, was on hand to cheer on his younger, pink-haired brother Michael, who claimed to have only started to sing 20 days before auditioning. Call it beginner’s luck, but the laid-back Texan’s raw talent was enough to convince the judges he deserves a shot in Hollywood.

• Best friends Jamar Rogers and Danny Gokey from Milwaukee both earned golden tickets, a particularly emotional achievement for Danny, whose wife has passed away only weeks earlier.

• Anoop, "Noop Dogg" Desai from Chapel Hill, NC, overcame his geeky college boy look to prove to the judges he deserved a shot in the second round.

• Singer Andrew Lang, who brought along his own cheerleading squad for support, almost had a golden ticket, until Paula asked him to sing a second song. Unfortunately, those few seconds of "Ain’t Too Proud to Beg" proved too theatrical for the judges and yes votes were promptly rescinded.

• Filling what appears to be the spot reserved for heartwarming stories at the end of each audition show was Memphis resident Lil Rounds. Not only did the 23-year-old have a tear-jerking tale to tell — Lil, her husband and their three children are living in a motel after losing their home to a tornado — she had the pipes to match.

So what do you think? Have you seen the next American Idol yet? Or will that winner come from one of the remaining six cities?

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