Despite its imminent demise, American Idol still danced winsomely for us last night, marking the start of its 9th season with a big, gloopy Boston-set episode. Sob stories and wild-eyed maniacs abounded as always. Though one maniac was sorely missing.

Paula!!!!!!!! A hood-lidded, heavy-jewelry'd primal scream goes out to you, wherever you are.

Her absence was palpable last night. Not because she was ever a terribly able judge — oh mercy she wasn't. There were brief flashes of lucidity, but mostly she just dozed off, occasionally letting bath beads come slowly burbling out of her mouth when it was time to issue a statement. No, it's not Paula's aptitude as a talent scout that's gone missing. It's just her Paula-ness, her femininity in the face of Simon's bulbous, British masculinity and Randy's strange reptilian asexuality. Sure there is that other one, that Kara, but what good is she? She can't just saunter in here and after a year act like she's our real mom. She'll never be our real mom!! [slams door, turns on 'Runaway Train' really loud]

Of course we'll have to see what lady-spice L'Ellen adds to the show, but I guess we won't see that until... what? Hollywood Week? Because, you know, Ellen can't be tromping off around the country looking at weirdos all summer. She has a show to do!

Oh and speaking of spice! In lieu of Ellen, the show has decided to have eight different guest judges during the prelims. Guesty LaRue this week was none other than one a them New Castle spice miner birds what started a band togefva and nows they're all real rich like. It was Victoria Beckham! And, now, I must admit... I sort of think that she's the cat's gaudy designer pajamas. Something about her just seems so tickled and self-aware about her very existence. I know she's ridiculous, but she knows it too.

Plus she was in Boston. My Boston! All of the city shots were pretty and soothing. Including two of yours truly's dear alma mater, Boston College. And in high-def! Hubba hubba.

The singing, you ask? What about the singing? Well, they showed a fair amount of genuine talents, which was good, and, I must admit, I fast forwarded through the disasters because at this point, nine years in, who in god's name still cares about the disasters? At this point it's so self-conscious and forced. Yes, weird minnowy computer nerd with acne who sounds like Screech Powers climaxing, you are going to become a singing star! I really believe that you believe that. I'm wondering what the fleet of producers that everyone has to go through before they see the Big Four is telling these folks. I wonder if they're really cruel, like "Oh yeah, that's great. You're great. Do exactly that. You're a shoe-in." I hope that's not the case. Because that would just be cruelty for cheap, fleeting entertainment. And no one likes that.

I liked: The girl at the end who was wearing some sort of unfortunate jean outfit but who sang clear as a bell and seemed humble enough. Randy said she was the best in Boston! And we will have to believe him for now.

I liked: The 21-year-old college student from Boston who was Latina I believe and was dressed well (skinny acid-washed jeans, big bright red stilettos). She had nice hair and a nice face and, one hopes, will do good things in this singing competition and then she will turn horrible and fame-obsessed. But for now! She's still likable for now.

I liked: The red-haired kid with the funky hat who sang Kris Allen-y mellowjams. Sure he's ridiculous, but we always need ridiculous lite rock boyz who will make girly hearts swoon and send shiver-shrieks reverberating through the Idol Thunderdome. This kid probably won't be quite that — I mean, we didn't meet Kris until the semi-finals and those are a loonnggg way away — but he's a start. He's a start.

I didn't like: Everyone else. Ha! No, but specifically? I didn't like the girl with the Downs Syndrome back story, not because she wasn't good, but because she is 16 and won't win and yet has been encouraged and made to believe, and I really think the age minimum for this thing should be 18. 16 is just too young to put your entire life on hold to pursue some shanty reality dreams that will very, very, very likely not work out in any way.

I didn't like: The big fat Italian from Providence. Though it tickled me to think that he is from Rhode Island and is a guido, and thus might know DJ Pauly Delicatessa Longstocking. That would be the only reason to keep him around. Otherwise he is useless. One of those big burly Matt Sarver types who everyone says is just so huggable but who would never in a million years have an actual bigtime music career. Singing in a band that does OK in small venues and tours around in a van? Sure thing. But there's a reason Leona Lewis isn't built like a linebacker.

I didn't like: The gangly kid with the Diana Ross bouffant who wore '70s clothes and growled out a mangled "Let's Get It On" that sounded wicked and perverse. I mean, they know there's no way he's going to make it through H'wood Week, so what's the point of letting him think he might? Really, I found myself thinking many many times last night, just what is the point?

And then Boston was done! There were other people, good people, who made it through. And there was a bespectacled improv comedian who played a character who wore glasses and was rude to everyone because he had to wait for his audition. It wasn't terribly convincing, but Kara, an idiot, seemed to buy into it wholeheartedly. So she got into it with him and it was lame and Victoria just started counting her money in her head again and Randy thought of new ways to kidnap Princess Peach and Simon just farted out a few more dollar bills and looked at them lazily.

And behind them the planes at Logan were whirring to life, sighing to silence. Pulling up into screaming ascents, dipping to rest down on the tarmac. Departures and arrivals, home and away. Land and sky.

Regular people with luggage and weight. And above them, stars.