In the days leading up to the premiere of ABC’s “American Idol” relaunch, the network issued a teaser clip that featured judge Katy Perry and a young contestant bonding over the slang term “wig” (as in, this event made my wig fly off).
The teaser perfectly encapsulates the aim of Sunday’s two-hour episode: to present “American Idol” — and its new judges — as light, fun and charming.
To that end, the episode is successful.
The auditions are rich with silly moments of escapism, several of which involve Perry. In addition to the aforementioned “wig” discussion (one that continues after the contestant auditions), the episode finds Perry slow-dancing with one contestant, while giving another his first kiss.
The judges, moreover, possess undeniable charm. While they have not yet established a “must-see” rapport in the vein of Randy Jackon, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul from the original “Idol” lineup or Adam Levine and Blake Shelton from “The Voice,” Perry and fellow judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan clearly seem to be enjoying each other’s company. They also seem to be thrilled with the gig itself.
The joy is infectious, making for a premiere episode that will undoubtedly make viewers smile.
The problem is the same one that plagued the last several seasons of FOX’s “American Idol.” It is the same one that bottlenecks the impact of “The Voice” and prevented “The Four” from becoming a major hit: the episode does not make viewers care.
Make no mistake, the landscape has changed greatly since “American Idol” first premiered.
For starters, the gimmick has been diluted by the numerous follow-up seasons (this will be the sixteenth “Idol”) and various competitive shows.
Programs like “American Idol” have also been impacted by shifts in the music industry. With social media helping aspiring artists regularly earn support from fans and attention from record executives, “Idol” no longer has a monopoly on crowd-sourced artist discovery.
By giving fans instant access to millions of songs, streaming services further dampen the impact of music competition series. When fans can quickly find niche artists who meet their precise tastes, it becomes exceedingly difficult to create a ubiquitous, mainstream “Idol.”
These factors do not simply hurt fan interest; they also impact the talent pool. Given that artists now have so many options for sharing their music, it is unlikely that the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood will end up on “American Idol.” The stigma of music competition series (not to mention their failure to create big stars in recent years) may actively deter potential superstars from considering the show.
My hope, however, was that ABC’s iteration of “American Idol” would find a way — or at least meaningfully attempt to find a way — to overcome those challenges and make viewers care. My hope was that there was a compelling reason to revive “Idol” (beyond confidence that the show could still attract a decent audience in today’s ratings-starved TV landscape).
That type of hope goes largely unfulfilled in the premiere.
The premiere is not without its moments. “Idol” remains in its own league when it comes to building emotional “narratives.” The ABC iteration of “Idol” continues the tradition of heartwarming video packages and interviews, thus making it easy to root for the different contestants.
Aspects of the “Idol” audition process remain iconic. “You’re going to Hollywood” still means something.
The aforementioned criticism about talent pools notwithstanding, a few of the auditions are truly excellent from a vocal standpoint.
While it is unclear how allegations of misconduct (ones he vehemently denies) will affect his long-term brand, what is clear is that Ryan Seacrest is the best in the business at connecting with the hopefuls – and selling their journey to the masses. “The Voice” host Carson Daly generally comes across as mechanical, while Fergie never seemed comfortable during the first season of “The Four.”
The premiere, unfortunately, does not lean heavily enough into these qualities. Narratives and emotions exist in the background, but the premiere still seems too committed to fun and shenanigans.
The show sometimes strikes the right balance between “viral” and “inspirational” (a contestant who had a “Fergie moment” as a child seeks redemption on “Idol”) but largely skews in favor of the former.
Through this emphasis on the silly antics around the auditions (rather than powerful vocal auditions themselves), the pacing, the all-too-familiar structure and the lighthearted judge dynamic, Sunday’s premiere feels far too much like a typical “TV show.” It rarely comes across as a special, transcendental journey to find the next star.
Asking the new iteration of “American Idol” to entirely reinvigorate interested in the dated concept may be too demanding. The show can (and must), however, make certain improvements moving forward.
It, for starters, needs to reconnect with what drives “Idol.” Cute little viral “moments” may inspire short-term chatter, but compelling, magical stories are what make shows like this matter. There are two auditions (a performance of “Almost Is Never Enough” and a performance of “Unaware”) that capture some of the magic of the early “Idol” years — and fit this mold.
While the premiere does not necessarily sell these moments short (the latter actually closes the episode), it does not treat them as dramatically different from some of the other auditions. It does not leverage as proof of why “Idol” needed to return. That is a huge mistake.
For all their charm and chemistry, the judges also need to demonstrate more authority and urgency.
No, they are not throwaway “nice judges.” None of the judges has qualms about criticizing decent contestants, let alone bad ones.
The problem is that they generally appear too committed to their fun, laid-back approach. They are not as pointed as they could be in offering criticism, which in turns takes some of the shine off their praise.
In the early days of “American Idol,” it mattered when Simon Cowell praised a contestant. For all their success, charisma and talent, Richie, Perry and Bryan do not remotely convey that degree of authority in the inaugural episode.
They also come up short in terms of “selling the dream” when someone gets pushed through to Hollywood.
On the one hand, criticizing the judges for a lack of authority may seem unfair: Sunday’s episode marks their first time appearing on the show as regular judges. They obviously need time to grow into their role.
On the other hand, the new judges are the most obvious point of differentiation from the past few seasons on FOX. Their credibility will also play an important part in asserting the show’s significance.
Oh, and let’s not forget: they are already big stars. Their words should automatically convey authority.
In that sense, their degree of command represents a very important element of Sunday’s episode. That command is lacking at this point in the game.
But insofar as all three judges have an abundance of success, charisma and stature, they can definitely make improvements in the weeks ahead.
At the end of the day, Sunday’s “American Idol” premiere makes for a fun, familiar two hours. If you remained committed to the past few seasons of FOX’s “Idol” and/or continue to support music competition series, you will not have any major complaints about the episode.
You will most likely not, however, experience renewed senses of energy or purpose. You will definitely not rediscover the magic that made “American Idol” so special in the early and mid-2000s.
The season premiere of ABC’s “American Idol” airs at 8PM ET/PT on Sunday, March 11.