Welcome back!

Kick off your shoes, prop your feet up and get ready for another fun-filled season of American Idol... and my blog about it, of course.

There's no cover charge at the door, but tips are welcome.

After a lackluster talent pool in Season 9 and the departure of a trio of high-profile judges, this season of American Idol will be about one thing above all - can Idol survive without Simon Cowell?

Sure, I hope we'll find some talented singers.

Of course, I'm looking forward to getting a regular dose of the beautiful J. Lo.

And, you bet, I'll be keeping track of how many creepy comments that new Idol judge and notorious ladies' man Steven Tyler makes towards the young female contestants. (He was already well over a dozen through the auditions alone, by the way).

But American Idol became the pop culture phenomenon that it is today thanks to the tongue-lashings that Simon doled out to contestants and the "What will he say next?" feeling viewers got when tuning in each week.

The revolving door that has been the American Idol judge's table for the past three seasons has given us the large-lipped Aerosmith front man and Jenny from the Block to be Randy Jackson's cohorts this season.

But only time will tell if we would've all been better off if they had tried to resurrect their stalled careers in a different way - on "Dancing with the Stars" or "Celebrity Rehab," perhaps.

Regardless, Hollywood Week kicked off Thursday night with what has become an annual tradition: Randy saying that this year's crop of contests is "most definitely better than ever."

He's been wrong more often than not, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. So we'll see.

American Idol's self-dubbed "Hell Week" did start off strong, however.

The most promising performances from this week were:

- My early overall favorite Paris Tassin - a gorgeous single mother of a special needs daughter - who performed a sultry, albeit uneven, version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" to advance.

- The soulful voices of a pair of exes from Michigan - Chelsee Oaks and Rob Bolin. Oaks had pretty tone and solid command during her audition, but Bolin has my favorite voice of all of this season's male contestants. He seems to have a lot of range, while still somehow singing in a distinctive gravelly tone.

- The owners of two of this year's best back stories - James Durbin, who has forms of autism and tourette's, and Chris Medina, whose fiancé was seriously injured in a car crash just months before the their wedding - both shined with powerful performances.

- The surprisingly wonderful performances of this year's crop of awkward teenagers, such as the small and chubby Jacee Badeaux, the wiry Sideshow Bob look-alike Brett Loewenstern, and the uncontrollably nervous Holly Cavanagh.

Unfortunately for the critic in me, there were only a few truly dreadful performances this week - including the self-indulgent Nick Fink, who threw a temper tantrum when his "girlfriend" advanced and he didn't, and the annoyingly spunky Victoria Huggins, who sounded like Fran Drescher with a southern twang.

But no worries!

Group week begins next Wednesday night and there are always plenty of train wrecks then.