Allure of 10-year 'American Idol' was, simply, Simon Cowell

American Idol, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox

I miss Simon already, and all I've seen are the previews.

"American Idol" returns this week for its 10th season, so long-lived now that people can tut-tut with authority about how they remember when it was good.

Its golden age was full of contestants so likable that we're all on a first-name basis, people like Clay, Kelly, Reuben, Fantasia, Carrie and Taylor.

But things fade. Last year's winner is hardy a household name. Quick - was it Lee DeWyze or Crystal Bowersox?

Yeah, I don't remember either, which is fine. Neither one has been rocking the charts.

But of all the first-name talents, none brought more than the singular Simon.

"Idol" spawned a wave of copycat prime-time performance shows, and it was Simon Cowell who inspired what came to be Hollywood law: Each judging panel needed a caustic Brit or all would be lost.

He spoke with unvarnished authority. As the critiques moved down the panel, it was always click, click, Bang !

When he said, "If I'm being honest with you..." it was always a preamble to savagery.

Delicious savagery.

With a dagger on top.

Getting a compliment from Cowell was better than winning a Grammy. If he said it was good, you could take it to the bank and get a loan on it.

Viewers liked to dissect Cowell's commentary, often in disagreement. He was the villain, the one who got to tie Little Nell to the railroad tracks.

Villains always have the best roles, and Cowell relished the assignment. He may have been a bad boy in black, but he was also the show's iron spine.

New judge Jennifer Lopez can be expected to bring useful advice to aspiring singers as well as an appreciation for performance art. I expect Steven Tyler to deliver a bit more comedy than the show is accustomed to.

Returning judge Randy Jackson has vowed to be more of an assertive dawg. If he pushes it, though, it will be a disaster.

To succeed in a setting like "Idol" you have to be yourself. If you're not genuine, the audience will know it and rebel.

Jackson is basically a nice guy. He will deliver the bad news, but doesn't want you to feel bad. He's an uncle, not a mentor.

He'll be the closer judge this season, the one in position three. He gets Cowell's seat, but won't fill his throne.

No one can. Cowell was the spark that lit the show. As "Idol" has sagged in the ratings - though it remains the No. 1 show - Cowell decided to move on to his new Fox project, "X-Factor."

It will be in a slightly different mold than "Idol," but close enough to qualify as clone material. Cowell knows enough about show business to know that people are always after the next big thing.

I expect "X-Factor," which launches in the fall, to be just that, and Cowell to be the reason why.

As for "Idol's" long-term viability? It's been a champ, but if I'm being honest with you...