Perhaps sensing some general need for respite – from unpleasantness, cruelty, bullies – ABC resurrects an American Idol that’s cozily familiar, reassuring even, with the franchise’s recognizable markers intact and the spikier inclinations of previous incarnations left behind. A trio of new judges – R&B legend Lionel Richie, pop diva Katy Perry, and country boy Luke Bryan – already seem a unified, chummy bunch.
Whether that’s a good thing depends on your taste for unified, chummy bunches. Don’t expect any Simon & Paula friction or Mariah & Nicki fireworks this season.
But the other Idol signifiers are mostly present, with a brief narrated introduction by Carrie Underwood reminding of glory days, and the unruffled tones of host Ryan Seacrest putting aside all bother from the outside world. And yes, there’s still incessant talk of journeys and dreams, montages of young hopefuls and teary rejects.
At this point, even the surprises are expected. Since Fox first aired the contest in 2002, we’ve long since come to know that some big, belting voices will erupt from small packages, some sexy, growly croons will come from the meekest of meek. The judges’ shocked expressions suggest merely that they haven’t been paying attention all these years.
The show’s Sunday night debut – a two-hour episode, made available to critics in advance – is, as the faithful will know, a pre-taped audition round-up (New York, Los Angeles, Nashville), so we certainly don’t yet know how the judges will interact during the live episodes – and, more importantly, what niches they’ll inhabit in critiquing contestants.
But from this episode, we can speculate that we’re in for a rather gentle, very un-Simon-like season.
“You’re interesting and brilliant beyond your years,” says the affable Bryan, after the requisite kooky girl in newsboy cap and spectacles sings a perky pop song about being a “cog in the 21st Century machine.” Adds Richie, “I’m fascinated by your brain.”
Perry does fine in the middle panel spot typically reserved for shoulder-to-lean-on divas, her worshipful followers thrilled at an up-close look and kindly word. She’s edgier than Jennifer Lopez, earthier than Mariah Carey, and nowhere near as loopy as Paula Abdul. So far, at this early going, she’s the show’s brightest spot.
Her shining moment in the premiere arrived when she dazzled an impossibly cherubic, rosy-cheeked first-time-in-L.A. farm boy (he comes on stage to the whistled Andy Griffith theme). He and Perry exchange a “Wig, Snatched” that suggests the kid’s not such a rube after all, and their bonding is all the sweeter for being lost on the other judges.
“I think Katy is going to bring a lot of love to the table,” Richie says at one point, plotting a course.
The former Commodore himself is positioned as the voice of experience, the one who can comfort a disappointed kid that’s just been told he needs to find his own identity. The Commodores were told the same, Richie offers, back when they sounded too much like Sly and the Family Stone.
Bryan is at his country best with the same contestant, who immigrated from Congo at 10 with an abusive father and is now determined to “break the cycle” as he raises his own son. “Something about you is pretty dad-gummed inspiring,” the judge says.
So, yeah, what would American Idol be without inspiring tales and aspirations, all packaged in backstory videos, nervous entreaties and elaborate vocal runs? All that, the faithful can handle.
But gentle let-downs and commiserations don’t make for drama – and Idol needs drama. After watching so many soft “really sorry but you’re just not there yet” dismissals, viewers might feel the same about the show. After a montage of just those rejections, Bryan says of a judge’s lot, “It’s tough on the brain,” while Richie commiserates, “It’s killing me.”
Eventually someone will need to stop killing with kindness, and who that someone will be remains to be seen. The show hasn’t indulged in Simon Cowell-level viciousness in ages, and won’t likely go back anytime soon, but there’s plenty of room for the clinical vivisections perfected by Harry Connick Jr. or even the bizarre rantings of Steven Tyler.
In the first episode, the only real bite comes from a bombastic, shrieking contestant rejected with undeserved charity.
Out of the judges’ earshot, the over-singing belter snipes, “I can take it down, dumbasses.”
American Idol premieres Sunday, March 11, at 8 pm ET on ABC. A second audition episode airs the following night, same time.