'American Idol' Season 16: TV Review

Meet the new 'Idol,' same as the old 'Idol.'
3/11/2018

Katy Perry is a judging standout in the first 'American Idol' episode on ABC, which feels pretty much exactly like 'American Idol' on Fox.

In this age of TV remakes and reboots and franchise resurrections, it has become impossible to keep any vehicle with any gas left in the tank off of the road.

That's why, less than two years after we said goodbye to one of the millennium's defining programs in a torrent of tears, confetti, balloons and lugubrious clip packages, American Idol is already back. With only one absent season to have allowed the heart to grow fonder, Idol makes the leap from Fox to ABC on Sunday night to start its 16th installment.

ABC has helpfully made the two-hour season premiere, an assembly of auditions from locations including New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and Orlando, available to critics to marvel at the alterations.

Don't get fooled again, though. Meet the new American Idol, same as the old American Idol.

I get that there will be a temptation, a perverse curiosity, to tune into Sunday's premiere to try to find the ephemeral and ideological differences. To try to see evidence of Mickey Mouse's fingerprints on the show's all-too-codified rhythms, to try to spot places where the Ghost of Uncle Walt pushed aside the Ghost of Fox Reality Guru Mike Darnell (who is still very much alive) to instill pure Disney values over that murky, murky Fox morality.

Nah. It's not there.

Granted that if you compare this ABC incarnation of American Idol to the Simon Cowell years — really to the William Hung and Larry "Pants on the Ground" Platt years — this incarnation might seem less conspicuously mean, less focused on the fame-hungry freaks and geeks who came out to auditions to get notoriety, regardless of approval. The problem with approaching it that way is that Cowell left American Idol long ago and even in his last couple seasons, he was sick of the contrivances of being forced to insult attention-whores who came in with no pretense of talent or entertainment and just wanted the fleeting glory of being torn to pieces in front of 25 million viewers. Cowell left, American Idol never really replaced his type of judging and, as more positive-skewing shows like NBC's The Voice became the fashion, American Idol tried to shift as well.

What you'll see on Sunday night, with its emphasis on uplifting performers, gifted performers or earnestly untalented performers isn't a Disneyfied version of Idol. It's the tone the show was going for in each of its last two or three seasons, becoming warmer and fuzzier and less scathing and mocking with each passing year. The concentration on the "Americana" of the title, specifically on contestants who came not from urban talent mills, but from rural, Red State roots, isn't something new that ABC has pushed to the forefront. It's exactly what Fox played up when the series reached what seemed like its last legs and producers looked back and realized that the Carries and Rubens and Kellys and Clays were the contestants who still resonated.

If the version of American Idol, especially the audition rounds, in our minds as typical for the show happens to be focused on maybe the first five seasons and their nearly equal balance of gifted and embarrassing contestants, that's because their popularity was never matched. I assure you that the ABC tone is basically the most recent tone and there's a reason you don't remember the audition rounds in those seasons, much less the eventual winners they yielded.

So if you're returning to Idol after an absence, expect a bit more positivity, but if you stuck with the show through its lean years, you'll mostly see the show you thought you'd left behind for a few years more.

It's the same montages of fresh-faced kids standing in line at venues waving their auditions, the same buses driving down highways intercut with stock images of farms and prairies and generically representative city skylines. It's the same footage of hopefuls meeting and conversing awkwardly in the holding pens, the same "Oh, we don't think the camera is rolling" preening and banter from the judges. The same winking tells and foreshadowing let us know when a contestant is going to be great and when a singer is going to be horrible and, as always, those winks and foreshadowings become misdirection at least once per episode (twice in the premiere) when a singer sounds absolutely nothing like we and the judges expect them to.

The musical stings between segments are identical, as are the corny and often facile song cues accompanying clip packages. A kid from Arkansas rolls into the room to the whistling melody of the theme from The Andy Griffith Show. A hale-throated Broadway diva's less-than-satisfactory exit is backed by Babs wailing "Don't Rain on My Parade."

There's even a callback to that most resilient of Idol recurring gags with a singer attempting to leave the audition room and using the wrong door, earning good-natured chiding from Ryan Seacrest, whose position awaiting news with antsy family members remains unchanged.

Whether or not you think American Idol should have replaced Ryan Seacrest with Christopher Plummer, Seacrest's presence in the midst of a news cycle in which he is accused of sexual assault — allegations he aggressively denies — is a nearly unavoidable distraction as you're reminded of how hands-on the host was with contestants. It's a hug-heavy role he plays, and I've always been a fan of Seacrest and his impact in Idol, especially in the live shows. Here and now, he became something I wasn't in the mood for. Perhaps that will change. Perhaps you'll feel differently. So it goes.

The other big alteration is, of course, an all-new judging panel of Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie.

Bryan is bringing a country-infused "Aw shucks!" charm comparable to what Blake Shelton brings to The Voice and Keith Urban brought to the later seasons of Idol. He's not hugely quick-witted, but he's down-to-earth and pleasant and capable of letting less-than-amazing singers down easily. Richie plays the role of savvy industry veteran with a cogent proficiency that makes him very different from the eccentricity-heavy schtick of previous name-dropping legends on the Idol panel like Paula Abdul or Steven Tyler. Richie has done Idol before, so there's very little surprise in seeing that he's a consummate pro full of stories from one of music's great career. Both men are just fine.

Perry, at least in this small sample size, is tremendous. She's legitimately everything I want in an Idol judge, minus perhaps a Harry Connick Jr-level of technical constructiveness. She's loopy and funny and wonderfully easy to read. She's far more approachable than any past Idol judge with a comparable level of fame and sex-bomb appeal, embracing and kissing and even dancing with contestants in the premiere. She's also capable of drawing a line and letting contestants down easily. There are three or four interactions between Perry and contestants in the premiere that stand as the episode's most memorable and endearing moments and that also feel like the kind of thing she does in her sleep. The chemistry between Perry and her two male cohorts is initially too vanilla and forced, but I can think of no past Idol judging panel that couldn't have benefited from Perry.

Naturally, this means that I'll be tired of Perry before the audition slog is over.

The way ABC's American Idol is most likely to differentiate itself will be determined by how the show's audience is demographically different from what Fox delivered. Idol became notorious for a series of interchangeable White Guy With Guitar winners, broken only temporarily by Candice Glover, one of a string of post-Phillip Phillips winners you probably don't remember. More than the network itself and perhaps even more than the judges themselves, the audience will determine if the revival feels different as we reach a Top 10 or Top 5.

The talent level in the first audition episode felt solid and an absence of a clearly groomed White Guy With Guitar frontrunner was notable. There were plenty of guitar-toting singers, but they weren't doing those slowed-down acoustic covers of up-tempo hits past panels have been known to swoon over. There was an interesting concentration on performers doing original songs, and of the originals, at least two or three weren't bad at all. Because part of the fun of Idol audition episodes is the in-the-moment discovery, I won't name any of my favorites from the first night. My instinct is that we haven't met a winner yet, but we may have met a few members of a Top 12.

I really don't know how much rubbernecking curiosity an American Idol on ABC can inspire. Although the show burned itself out as a phenomenon, its ratings at their lowest still represented numbers Fox would have been happy with these past two years. For that audience that stuck around, an audience that I'm part of, I can only say that the Idol that's returning is the Idol that left. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, honestly. It's just a familiar thing.

Airs: Sundays and Mondays, 8 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)