TV REVIEW: “AMERICAN IDOL”

American Idol judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan

Yes, it’s another re-boot no one asked for. Yes, Seacrest is as inconsequential as ever. Yes, Katy Perry is the most expensive seat-filler in recorded history. This dust-off of AMERICAN IDOL is wildly premature, totally unnecessary…and I fell for every glossy, manipulative minute. Damn you, ABC!

American Idol was a 15 season tent-pole for FOX. Over the course of that run, the ratings story topped out at “Pop-Culture Phenom” and hit rock bottom with “Dead Horse, Fully Beaten.” In its heyday, the show was averaging more than 30 million viewers each week. By the time the curtain finally dropped in April of 2016, the series had already worn out its welcome.

The original American Idol judges

ABC CAN’T FIND ITS VOICE

Because American Idol ended as a shadow of its former self, it can be easy to forget how significant the series once was. The success went well  beyond ratings, revenue and recognition. For most of its first ten years on air, American Idol was an unstoppable beast. Rival networks feared it, no producer wanted their show scheduled against it and dozens of imitators fell to it.

American Idol was literally in a category by itself until 2011. In April of that year, NBC launched The Voice.  It was an instant sensation and quickly became the first breakout hit in the singing competition genre since American Idol. As of this writing, there hasn’t been another. That’s not for lack of trying.

Enter ABC. In 2012, the network launched Duets, starring Kelly Clarkson and John Legend. The series was cancelled after nine episodes. Subsequent attempts to vanquish The Voice met a similar fate, including Sing Your Face Off and Rising Star. To this day, ABC has never aired an original singing competition series that lasted more than ten episodes. Refusing to throw in the towel but unwilling to start from scratch again, the network doubled down on familiarity. In May of 2017, ABC acquired the rights to American Idol. The announcement, coming only a year after the series finale, was greeted with equal parts derision, confusion and disinterest. I had my own thoughts. Not one of them good.

American Idol judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan

PROCESSING A PALATABLE PERRY

In hindsight, there were signs ABC was headed in the right direction. The “yo, dawg” mumbo-jumbo and bitchy pontificating of gasbags like Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell would remain relics of American Idol’s past. Taking a cue from the competition, it would be recording artists only at the new judge’s table. Prospects should have looked even brighter after the network announced Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan would fill the seats. Unfortunately, when one (me) is blinded by a visceral hatred of all things Katy Perry, one (also me) has little inclination to look for an upside. I’m still not a fan, but at least this version of her doesn’t make my blood boil.

The mere existence of Palatable Perry is a minor miracle. In fact, it’s clear from the get-go that an aggressive containment plan is in play. This coordinated effort to proctor, package and position her is a smart move that pays multiple dividends. First and foremost, it prevents Katy Creep. Left unchecked, her shameless mugging can start a chain reaction. Gradually, that face pops up in more and more shots until the invasion is complete. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here. Producers (mostly) keep Perry’s antics  to a minimum and parity is the consistent norm between  judges. There are lapses though; like sexy banter with 18-year-old Jonny Brenns that feels inappropriate or overtly aggressive flirting with contestant Trevor Holmes. Personally, I could do without the “Perry On the Prowl” moments. They’re awkward, pointless and would never be tolerated if it was a male judge pawing at female contestants.

American Idol judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan

JUDGING JUDGE KATY

At her best, Katy Perry is a consistently weak judge. She offers trite feedback that’s uninspired and immediately disposable. There are occasional signs of life but, more often than not, Perry seems detached, aloof or mildly irritated. In fact, the disconnect from her video and stage persona is so pronounced here, it’s almost jarring. I’m not saying I ever expected much, but I certainly didn’t anticipate there’d be this little. 

Luckily, Perry isn’t alone at the table. The two remaining judges are also two of the biggest reasons a re-spawned American Idol is so much fun to watch. Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan might not be earning Katy Perry money, but each of them brings infinitely more to the table. They also want to be at the table, exuding an enthusiasm for the experience that’s infectious and refreshing. 

American Idol judge Lionel Richie

THE REST OF THE JUDGE’S TABLE

Richie is clearly having the time of his life. Here, he’s equal parts mentor, father figure and playground monitor. He’s also fully engaged; asking questions with genuine interest and doling out thoughtful, substantive advice. Richie is so grounded and affable, it’s easy to forget what a big deal he is. A living legend and still relevant, this is a guy who doesn’t have to submit to the grind of series television. Richie is in his element here and it looks like he couldn’t be happier.

As good as Lionel Richie is, Luke Bryan is a barn burner. I’m sure this isn’t news to his fans, but Bryan is a genuine pleasure to watch. I’m particularly impressed by how effortlessly he embraces contestants of all shapes, sizes, genders, ethnicities and musical backgrounds. Bryan can be a gregarious cheerleader one minute and an introspective mentor the next. Of the three judges, he’s the one most likely to challenge a contestant to dig deeper or re-think their approach to a song. Luke Bryan is easily the biggest and best surprise in the American Idol package.

American Idol contestant Ada Vox
CONTESTANT ADA VOX

ABC SAYS NO TO A FRANKENSHOW

As for the rest of the show, it should feel familiar to fans of the original. ABC plays it pretty safe here. That’s not a bad thing. Network execs sometimes respond to competitive disadvantage with the worst of their instincts. They take the body of one series, bolt on random elements from another and unleash a Frankenshow. Bad monster! ABC wisely chooses the well-lighted path. This is a revival of American Idol that sticks to the format. No desperate gimmicks, no gratuitous flourishes, no spinning chairs.

Though faithful to the original, ABC has made the franchise its own, albeit in more subtle and inconspicuous ways. Spend some time with any episode and you’ll see a production with more polish and style. Of special note are the pre-produced performer profiles. Every show of this type has them. Most of the time they’re functional and forgettable. Not so here. Camera work, editing and script content is exceptional throughout, with each individual video packages leaving a distinct impression.

American Idol contestant Ron Bultongez
CONTESTANT RON BULTONGEZ

THE POWER OF SURPRISE SUBSTANCE

These are easily the best produced audition episodes in the history of the franchise. It quickly became apparent that my intelligence wasn’t going to be insulted. That made it easy to  let go of any lingering negative preconceptions. Another vote of confidence: ABC did a good thing and eliminated the “humiliation as entertainment” element from the audition round. Gone are performances by people with no musical talent, deliberately sent through to the judges for ridicule and public shaming.

On the performance front, there’s certainly no shortage of amazing singers. I don’t think it’s my imagination, though, that the range of talent is more dynamic and multi-cultural here than it was in the original. Sure, there are the requisite pretty boys and bubbly blondes, but they’re far outstripped by musicians who represent a collective diversity of race, gender, age, body type, ethnicity, cultural origin and social strata. Maybe this is why so many of the individual backstories have a depth of substance and texture that I would never have expected to find on a show like American Idol.  In fact, if there was one thing that moved me to give the show a chance, certainly it was this.

American Idol contestant Maddie Zahm
CONTESTANT MADDIE ZAHM AND MARCUS, HER MUSE

FINAL THOUGHTS

I was never a fan of the original American Idol. More popularity contest than talent showcase, it was a bombastic clown-car that kept circling the block forever.  Somehow, ABC prepared a palate cleaner that kills the taste of tacky TV theatrics. Perhaps current real world events add new urgency to the need for escapism. That could make a song-filled, hyper-idealized showscape an appealing destination. Or, maybe it’s best to just skip the over thinking and surrender to the enigma of a pleasant surprise.

Yes, I’m fully aware American Idol is the product of highly selective talent screening, editorial sleight of hand and strategically spiked drama. None of that should devalue the talent of any participant or the entertainment-worthiness of the show itself. Though there might be a disproportionate amount of junk in the category, that doesn’t mean every unscripted series is inferior claptrap. Misconceptions of that sort belie the depth of skill required to successfully pull off engaging artifice. American Idol is manufactured reality because of its genre. It’s good manufactured reality because of the mechanics and materials in the machine.

Through April 23, American Idol airs Sunday and Monday nights at 8pm E/P on ABC. Beginning April 29, the show will air on Sunday nights only. Next-day streaming is available on Hulu.

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