“American Idol” begins its eleventh season Wednesday night exactly where it left off last May.

Much to the surprise of television analysts, last year’s season reversed its ratings downturn despite losing star judge Simon Cowell to his “X Factor” adaptation. More importantly to television fans, it rekindled the warmth that made “Idol” such a welcome, enjoyable addition to the weekly television lineup.

While some–including this very website–occasionally criticized the new judging panel for abandoning even a remote connection to the concept of “criticism,” the reality is that replacing Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres with Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez (and keeping Randy Jackson) was the best thing that could ever happen to the show. They, at the end of the day, demonstrated an actual investment in both the concept and the contestants, and despite being superstars with big personalities, quickly understood that the show is really about the aspiring singers.

As a result, the actual competition mattered again. People were emotional when Casey Abrams earned the judges’ save. People flipped out when Pia Toscano prematurely departed the competition. They hassled the producers and judges for overhyping James Durbin and underhyping Haley Reinhart. Perhaps most importantly, they actually paid attention to winner Scotty McCreery’s career…and actually bought his album.

In a 25 minute audition preview for critics, “Idol” finds itself comfortably back in that heartfelt, positive place. The judges have only expanded upon their wonderful chemistry and enthusiasm, and some of the contestants already seem poised to click with the American public.

As should be obvious after ten prior seasons of “American Idol,” there is nothing unexpected or cutting-edge about the audition footage. Over the next few weeks, “Idol” viewers will be exposed to the usual suspect of hopefuls and the usual elements of “humor.” There’s the charming, decent-looking guy who instantly makes a believer out of J-Lo. There’s the cute Mississippi girl whose voice is quite rough and unrefined but seems to have something. There’s the girl who sings “Sunday Morning” better than Adam Levine. There’s the goofy, sometimes-awkward but always-endearing banter with Ryan Seacrest. There’s the obligatory video package featuring female contestants–and their mothers and grandmothers–swooning over Steven Tyler. There’s the annoying bit about how the auditions aboard the USS Midway kept getting distracted by various noises.

That is not to say the 25-minute screener did not bring forth some wonderfully-entertaining moments. The aforementioned “decent-looking guy” (who has been featured in some of the promos) and “Sunday Morning” girl both demonstrated the kind of immense, yet still unperfected talent that could very well thrive in the “American Idol” universe (granted, as I have seen only a few auditions, this is absolutely not a “prediction”). A teenage contestant from North Carolina, whose voice has potential, reveals (with footage to back it up) that he beat Season Ten winner Scotty McCreery in a local 2009 talent competition.

Humor, meanwhile, is not only had at the expense of bad or delusional contestants but also from the occasional “fake outs.” Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that one should not prematurely count out a singer because he selects a cheesy sitcom theme song as his audition number. And one should certainly not rule out the possibility that someone with a “big head,” shaky hands and a thick accent can breathe new life into a cliched Michael Bolton number.

But no matter how predictable and by-the-books, the “Idol” audition process does the one thing fall series “The X Factor” could only do on occasion–it connects with viewers. Of the footage showcased thus far, there is no audition as vocally impressive as that of Melanie Amaro or as commercially-relevant as that of Chris Rene, and there has not even yet been a “sob story.” Yet the show knows that it has to make its performers real. That human connection between America and the hopefuls, established by charming interactions between the contestants and judges and/or Ryan Seacrest and solidified by honest performances, will assure America again finds itself invested in the outcome.

Undoubtedly, there will be bad theme weeks and weeks during which frontrunner contestants start to feel repetitive, detached and uninspired. That reality hurt “The X Factor,” which, with the battle between the judges at its center, never did enough to properly get the contestants, some of whom were far more talented and compelling than the average “Idol” competitor.

But if last season’s success and this season’s early moments are any indication, “American Idol” will not make that mistake.

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •