Will this week’s “American Idol” premiere achieve ratings within the ballpark of what the show delivered in its heyday? No.

Will this season of “American Idol”–its thirteenth–infiltrate pop culture the way the first five seasons did? Absolutely not.

But if one is wondering whether the latest installment will deliver a satisfying, engaging viewing experience for those still interested in music competition series, the answer is a resounding yes.

And much of the credit for that affirmative belongs to new judge Harry Connick, Jr. Assuming his contribution to the two-hour premiere is not an anomaly, Connick will this year establish himself as reality television’s most valuable player.

A Wish Finally Granted
To entertainment diehards, the entertaining, charismatic and honest Connick had always represented an ideal addition to the “American Idol” judging panel. Compelling in theory and in practice–he shined as a guest mentor on the show–Connick seemed like the natural heir to the throne Simon Cowell vacated after the show’s ninth season.

The stars did not immediately align, but the consequences were delayed. Thanks to committed work from the panel involving Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson and the most entertaining group of finalists since season five’s stacked lineup, “Idol” thrived in its tenth season.

Things quickly changed. Season eleven had its moments–and produced a bona fide star in winner Phillip Phillips–but it also produced a massive cut from which viewers bled by the millions. That Tyler’s shtick became stale and Lopez’ energy seemed depleted did not help matters.

Hoping to rebound from the disaster–and compete with the red-hot “The Voice”–”Idol” revamped its judging panel for season twelve. In addition to booking Mariah Carey, who had long been considered a dream judge, “Idol” took a page out of its competitor’s playbook by casting contemporary music sensations in Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj. Veteran judge Randy Jackson remained at the table.

The panel proved to be a nightmare.

Despite her iconic talent as a vocalist, Carey had nothing to contribute from the judges’ table. Jackson’s effort oscillated between lifeless and cartoonish. Minaj occasionally offered astute criticism, but she compromised that credibility by book-ending the comments with off-putting nicknames, voices and antics. Urban was committed to the job, but as the tamest member of the overbearing, scattered, chemistry-deficient panel, his words never seemed to resonate.

Predictably, ratings continued to fall. Just as predictably, “Idol” again committed to a reboot in the off-season. In addition to dropping its executive producers, the series removed all but Urban from its judging panel.

Following speculation that brought names ranging from Justin Bieber to P!nk to Dr. Luke into the mix, “Idol” finally settled on its panel. And it finally earmarked one of its seats for Connick, Jr.

The panel, comprised of the debuting Connick and returning Urban and Lopez, is the series’ lowest-profile and least buzzworthy in years.

It is also the best since the Randy, Simon and Paula era.

Going Back to the Heart
NBC’s “The Voice” was not the first series to capitalize on America’s “Idol”-driven infatuation with music competition series. It was, however, the first to not only wage a credible threat to the “Idol” crown but actually make good on its threat. It became America’s leading music competition series.

But while it managed to deliver a fresher format, slicker production, a stronger overall talent pool and a more charismatic judging panel, “The Voice” has yet to replicate the most important element of the “American Idol” experience: the heart.

Unrivaled when it comes to selling the dream, fleshing out contestant backstories and creating compelling competitive narratives, “American Idol”‘s ability to navigate emotion has always been its calling card. Viewers, from the first audition episode to the closing moments of the finale, felt connected to their favorite contestants and thus had reason to invest their feelings in the outcome.

That investment, which did not end with any given season finale, explains how “Idol” could produce stars like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.

For all the criticism he endures, Ryan Seacrest has played an invaluable role in constructing that emotional narrative. He, far moreso than hosts like Carson Daly and Mario Lopez, finds a way to connect with the contestants. He immerses himself so deeply in the competition that even though he is making millions to be there, there is rarely doubt that he is also there because he believes in the process.

Even more integral to the experience, however, is a charismatic, engaged judging panel.

Contrary to common belief, the best judges are not those who tone down their personalities and opinions under the artificial notion that they are “making it about the contestants.” And in accordance with everyone’s belief, the best judges are definitely not those who prioritize their zippy one-liners and wardrobe choices over the aspiring musicians.

As a result, the show that made its money in the game of emotion felt nearly emotionless last season. Caught between not wanting to hurt feelings (Carey), not showing much conviction (Jackson, Urban) and not wanting to let the spotlight move elsewhere (Minaj), the judging panel made the competition–and, as a result, the contestants–feel small. “Idol” was a television show rather than a pathway to dreams.

This year’s judging panel alleviates that flaw. It, by virtue of its undeniable chemistry and a commanding presence from Connick, makes “American Idol” special again.

Save for an early, contrived conversation in which the three judges awkwardly discuss the importance of the show, everything about Wednesday’s premiere inspires confidence that this panel will make “Idol” the show to watch again.

And even if it does not prompt more people to watch, the panel will assure this season of “Idol” matters to those who do.

Again Committed
Truly hoping to make the season enjoyable, all three judges (including Urban, who no longer seems uncomfortable) are bursting with energy, enthusiasm and passion for the process. Truly hoping to identify the best young talent, all three judges seem committed to engaging with hopefuls.

They really want to know what motivates each auditioning contestant. And they really want to consider each contestant’s strengths and limitations.

That shared passion helps the three judges, who already gel from a personality standpoint, quickly create one of the most endearing bonds ever on “American Idol.” Knowing that they all share in their commitment to doing right by the series and its contestants, they are able to engage in open, unpretentious banter and debate at every turn.

Consider their debates about the taste of a sixteen year old singing Grace Potter’s “Paris (Ooh La La),” their discussions about reliance on runs or their discussion about whether “Roar,” prior to hearing the song performed as an acoustic ballad, was a great pop song. Though milked for the camera, these engaging conversations feel completely sincere. And they only happen because all three judges are so committed to succeeding that they will leave no relevant topics unaddressed.

Bringing Out the Best in Others
That the trio is united in its effort does not mean an individual judge does not distance himself from the pack.

Rich with (tastefully) hilarious lines, uniquely insightful criticism and a willingness to break bad news to contestants, Connick absolutely does so. His glee to be judging “American Idol” is obvious from the onset of the episode, and when combined with his ear for music and natural charisma, he becomes the irrefutable highlight of the season.

Important about Connick’s performance, however, is that he does not overshadow his fellow judges. Unlike other judges who strive to make reality series about themselves, he uses his flair for entertainment to bring out the best in his fellow judges and, at times, the contestants.

Confident yet easy-going, Connick engages Lopez and Urban in the types of banter and debates required to fuel reality competition series. A scene in which he explains the pentatonic scale to Jennifer Lopez–and lesson to which he calls back later in the episode–will serve as the moment many viewers fall back in love with “Idol.”

He also finds ways to help loosen up contestant, which allows them to overcome the stifling tension and demonstrate personality. Willing to engage–and honestly rate–all of them, Connick’s interaction hits a special height when he cradles (yes) one of his biggest fans.

Had Harry Connick, Jr. joined “Idol” eight or nine years ago, he could have rivaled Simon Cowell as the genre’s most notable personality. Media and pop culture attention are no longer enough to generate that notoriety, but Connick will surely be a hit with those who do watch.

Isn’t It About the Contestants?
By caring about the process and the contestants, the judges–who are far from background personalities–ultimately prompt viewers to care about the contestants as well. The focused, energized panel restores audience focus and energy to their true objective: finding the next “American Idol.”

The quality of contestants, however, is the weakest aspect of the season thirteen “American Idol” premiere. The two-hour episode, wisely, devotes little time to the joke acts (and the one it most notably does spotlight is incredible), but it also struggles to find anyone who belongs in the great category rather than the good one.

There are some standouts–a male contestant from Austin who delivers a legitimately good original song comes to mind–but the overall talent pool is underwhelming. As a point of reference, few of the contestants who receive Golden Tickets to Hollywood would receive four chair turnarounds on “The Voice.”

The magic of “Idol,” however, is its ability to inspire belief in its diamond in the rough contestants. The hopefuls are not supposed to be perfect now; they are supposed to have the potential and passion to reach a state of excellence.

Thanks to a panel of judges that cares and its signature storytelling skill, “American Idol” begins by making viewers care who advances to Hollywood. If everything stays on track, viewers will care who wins to a far greater extent than they have for any recent music competition series.

FOX’s “American Idol” kicks off at 8PM on January 15, 2014

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