Once upon a time, American Idol could do no wrong. Ratings rained down from the heavens, plentiful and consistent, and each season brought Simon Cowell's zings and Paula Abdul's improvised poetry, with talented cherubs just looking for their big breaks. What a glorious and innocent time we had. Special, even. How mighty was our joy, how communal our sorrows. I voted for Clay Aiken many times. But then the storm clouds rolled in, and the thundering voice of TV God shouted, "Be careful what you wish for!" Lo, we had not been careful, and Idol began to reflect the worst in our nature: the Schadenfreude, the mockery, our desire to dispose of celebrities. We were like cruel deep-sea divers, shining our poisonously bright light into the darkness, poking around a bit, and then fleeing, with no regard for the damage our observations had inflicted. Remember Sanjaya? Oh, just barely. Go back to your shadowy sea cave and swim in peace, Sanjaya, we should never have bothered you for our selfish purposes.
Things were bleak for a long time. Audition episodes maximized ridicule and minimized decency, a revolving door of judges offered drama but no substance, and we reached peak cultural saturation for performances of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." "No more 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered,'" we cried, but our lamentations were met with indifference. "Here's 'Pants on the Ground' guy," Idol gurgled. "Here are teenagers with guitars pretending like they know what suffering is." We pleaded for mercy, but Idol gave us Steven Tyler. Eventually, we fled, leaving behind all of our Idol affection and replacing it with a strong indifference toward and then a complete ignorance of the happenings in Idol country. Did a girl win? Maybe a boy won? What is a radio?
But then a strange thing happened, and after wandering Idol-less for years, a beacon appeared. He looked like Harry Connick Jr., and he knew a lot about music. Jennifer Lopez called out to us, and Keith Urban, of all people, was there, too. It's strange to say and even stranger to feel, but ... Idol is good again.
Now in its 14th season, Idol has been reborn as a more cheerful, stable version of its former self. Gone are the humiliating audition clips, and in their stead are just legitimately good auditions. Not everyone makes it, because life is just one big Dumpster fire, but overwhelmingly everyone seems to have a real shot. The judging is refreshingly sane and substantive: Harry is the tough one, but his feedback isn't mean-spirited, and his number-one beef seems to be with amateurism. He takes music pretty seriously! What a treat! J.Lo is the nice one, calling everyone "sweetie" and genially bopping her head along to the songs. Keith is harmless. And the would-be Idols, many of whom are straight-up children, are earnestly singing their hearts out, accompanying themselves with piano and guitar and a ukulele here and there. Idol is supposed to be fun, and so far, this season is. A few lesser talents have already skated through, and my personal favorite contestant has already been eliminated, which brought me to tears. Actual tears, real tears, from my tear holes.
Of course, this cycle is just getting started. They're still narrowing the pool to the top 24, and then who really knows how things will shake out? People wilt on that big bright stage, and Ryan Seacrest can really bring out the awkward in some contestants. The trend so far seems to be for funky guys and raspy indie-folk girls, with lots of slow, melancholy covers of otherwise up-tempo pop songs. That's fine. I like those things, or at least I like them enough. More important than the specific contestants, though, is the vibe of the season thus far, which is one of upbeat determination. Idol's not an underdog by any stretch, but it's a series that knows its glory days are gone. Fox knows, we know, Seacrest knows, everyone knows. But it's not shutting the lights off just yet. Talent contests are still good television, Idol is still a perfectly cromulent concept, and everyone loves a good toe-tapper, so gosh darn it, let's put on a show. We'll call it American Idol, and the people will love it. Amen.