American Idol, like anything else I’ve ever loved, is exhausting. The week-by-week eliminations are exhausting. The contestant backstories, reiterated hundreds of times through a season like peer-pressure warnings in a D.A.R.E. video, are exhausting. Ryan Seacrest’s distinctly Pat Sajak–ian blend of hospitality and palpable contempt is exhausting. I’m hyperventilating now remembering every configuration of judges — even Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson — and their endless attempts to telegraph “chemistry” for our viewing pleasure. For a juggernaut that dates back to the halcyon days of Nellyville, American Idol has always been an effort to endure. And then, out of nowhere, a thrill to survive.
It’s only when a season is over — or in this case, the 23 months since the season 15 finale — that the pleasures of Idol come back to me: Melinda Doolittle reinvigorating “My Funny Valentine”; Katharine McPhee bopping on her knees for no reason during “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”; Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta power-hugging after their triumphant “Slow Ride” duet (surely clinking grommets on each other’s “rocker” attire); the hurt of Fantasia Barrino; the terror of Sanjaya Malakar; Neil Sedaka pained with admiration after being introduced to the impossible, unknowable concept of Clay Aiken; and, of course, our introduction to Kelly Clarkson, that singular belter who manages to be relatable without pandering, cool without aloofness, and true to herself even when Clive Davis or Dr. Luke or 19 Entertainment said that wasn’t in the contract.
But we’re well past the Idol golden era. We’re even past Idol’s subsequent awkward years where judge Kara DioGuardi, Simon Cowell’s second Mrs. de Winter, did her job wrong by being smart and thoughtful, or when Ellen DeGeneres was bewildered to learn that she couldn’t jitterbug out of every contestant critique, or when Mariah Carey threw glitter at the magnificent season 12 winner Candice Glover just to have something to do. In 2018, we find Idol on ABC without even a whiff of Keith Urban’s Peppermint Patty bob to remind us of the past. It’s a fresh, Disney-fied start — unless, of course, you consider the recent sexual-assault allegations from Ryan Seacrest’s former stylist Suzie Hardy, who claims that the Idol host subjected her to years of abuse. Maybe Giuliana Rancic doesn’t have to stand near Seacrest on the E! red carpet anymore, but Idol viewers still must endure his voice-overs and contestant introductions as we barrel through the audition episodes. It’s not comfortable and I’m not sure it ever will be. So much for new beginnings as we pray the specter of The Voice, the odd hit that keeps delivering quirky gurglers and their garbled versions of “Fast Car” (or whatever), doesn’t render this whole thing moot.
Sunday night’s premiere episode opens with a montage of hopeful youngsters brandishing guitars and gazing into the camera like hunks from Singled Out. Carrie Underwood narrates the package and that makes sense since she’s the ideal Idol winner: a wild mix of conventional talent and conventional good looks. Who’d have thunk?
Then come the judges, a slot-machine-selected trio comprising an Oscar-winning veteran (Lionel Richie), a pop diva (Katy Perry), and a tallish country man with two first names (Luke Bryan). Before I can insist there’s no way these S.S. Minnow travelers will get along, they sing each other’s praises.
“I think Katy is going to bring a lot of fun to the table,” intones Lionel like he deduced Kierkegaard.
“I’m so honored to be sitting next to Lionel Richie,” says Luke Bryan in full Don Trump Jr.–on-tree-stump drag.
“Luke is definitely warm-hearted,” says Katy, earnestly. “That’s my Luke.” I have to tell you: I could sense from this sound-bite alone that Katy was suited for this gig. Though she’s been a hit-maker for a decade, Katy Perry has always opted for goofiness over Madonna-type stage command. While that can make her enjoyable as a radio entity (hell, I’d argue we care about the concept of “Song of the Summer” because Katy Perry exhumed it with “California Gurls” in 2010), her kooky confectionary vibe has always felt slight and anodyne when compared to a schlock goddess like Lady Gaga or a Duracell-operated X-Men character like Beyoncé. But that hasn’t daunted her: Even through her miserably long-winded feud with Taylor “Glenn Close on Damages” Swift, Katy has done her best to be transparent, unpretentious, and pretty funny. There’s an accessibility to her Crayola Washables spectacle and that’s the kind of judge Idol needs. I have high hopes for her empathetic vibes. Maybe Lionel will even say, “She has empathetic vibes”!
Our first episode commences with a 17-year-old auditionee named Catie Tuner who wears giant Hello, My Name Is Doris glasses, giggles for days at a time, and calls herself “awkward.” Forgive me: I am sad that it’s 2018 and teens are still calling themselves awkward. Can we move on from that era? Aren’t we done with, like, The Glee Project? Catie continues by writhing on some stairs in her pink jumper, sniffing her armpit on camera, and then squealing, “Don’t show me sniffing my armpit!” You get it. Cunning sociopath.
Stepping into the room with Lionel, Katy, and Luke, Catie wields a guitar and bursts into a self-written song called “21st Century Machine.” Quaint but urgent, she trills, “People on the airwaves always preach who I should be” and ends with, “Someone tell if me this is all an illusion or if I’m just a cog in the 21st-century machine.” Man, I miss high-school English. Makes me want to read Howl and convince myself I’m in in love with Jessica Simpson again (“Irresistible” era). Catie’s voice is quavery but assured; Lionel, Katy, and Luke rightfully eat it up. “Every once in awhile a martian lands, and sometimes we get to see the martian,” reasons Lionel. I’m now thinking about martian landings where Lionel Richie asked to view the martian and was denied. Had to have been sad. With three yeses, Catie wins our first ticket to Hollywood Week. Take that, people on the airwaves.
Ron Bultongez is up next, he’s from the Congo (yes, the actual place, not the wonderful Laura Linney movie), and he has a terribly sad story that involves an abusive upbringing, moving to America when he was 10, and being cut off from his own family. Ron serves up “Let It Go” by James Bay, and he is very into paining up every syllable. It’s a solid whine, a solid bleat, but Katy is on to something when she says he’s good at imitating and questions whether he has his own thing yet. Lionel seconds this idea and oh my God, they reject him. It’s a restrained and grownup dismissal on Idol! A new era is upon us!
But wait: After we return from commercial, Lionel and Luke reconsider their positions and — in an unprecedented TV gesture that would have Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite gagging — Ron is welcomed back to the big room where he’s given a ticket to Hollywood. Never mind. This is going to be a pretty cordial Disney affair after all. Mickey is waving the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” wand all around Lionel’s thin scarf.
Speaking of Walt: Maggie Poppe, our next singer, gives a rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” so twee that Kermit the Frog punts his banjo into traffic. Her voice is fabulous and she cuts the figure of a young Shawn Colvin, but man, Rivers Cuomo’s version was precious enough for me in 2011. And I’ll tell you what? I’m glad this song lost the 1979 Best Original Song Oscar to “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae. Jennifer Warnes owned your ass, Kermit, and she did it with a fine song about small-town people just getting by. Accept it. Anyway, Maggie is going to Hollywood, maybe she’ll serve up more Paul Williams–penned joy in the future.
This should excite you: Our next performer Koby looks half like Taylor Swift in her “Teardrops on My Guitar” stage and half like the legendary Bridgette Wilson-Sampras. She is a Broadway hopeful with some giddy evil in her eyes and we’re thrilled to see her take that hoofer energy and channel it into … easily the loudest and most songless bellowing I’ll hear this year. It’s a disaster, and so we get a quick tutorial in how our judges handle catastrophes. When Koby defaults to claiming Katy is her Scorpio sister, Katy replies, “Well, Scorpios also do not lie: You are not a pop star. It’s not right, so it’s a no for me.” Firm and quippy! Lionel adds that she’s more Broadway than pop, and Luke says she’d be doing herself a disservice by pursuing pop instead of being “the next Kristin Chenoweth.” She leaves and shatters into a pile of snakes, but I’m too busy admiring our triumvirate’s tact and cleverness to care.
Redemption is a recurring Idol motif and Harper Grace — yes, we’re in an era where people named “Harper Grace” are old enough to ululate for money — has a hurdle to overcome. Six years ago, she botched the National Anthem so badly at a local soccer game that Robin Roberts commented on it during a Good Morning America segment, which means Robin Roberts must’ve been feeling bored (or was it savage?) that day. The rendition sounds something like this legendary performance of “Ain’t Gonna Pee Pee My Bed Tonight” with its vomit-tinged growls and general charisma. Now, Harper is a well-adjusted 16-year-old who can purr an acoustic version of Khalid’s “Young Dumb & Broke” and a Dolly Parton–esque original song in the vein of “Bargain Store.” It is awfully rare that an Idol performer would be a better songwriter than singer, but it’s possible Harper Grace could be the exception, even if 16 is still a zany-young age to be on a show like this. Also, does Harper Grace know her name is two different Debra Messing characters? I bet not. And that is why I am passionate about education.
She’s followed by a Kentuckian named Layla Spring, who is approximately 11 years old and brings her tinier sister Dixie with her. I am not making up these names and neither is Vivid Entertainment. Layla’s version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” is neither fiery nor special, but she is a fetal Keri Russell and Hollywood can work with that. Lionel says something about how she’s going through the fire now and it’s like, we get it, dude, you know Chaka.
Hollywood, meanwhile, is not so hip to electronics-store cashier Benjamin Glaze’s strumming (even if he did win a peck on the lips from Katy) or punk rocker Nico Bones, sort of a drag Charlotte Gainsbourg who performs the upcoming smash “Worms.” Quoted: “Nobody likes me / Everybody hates me / Just because I eat worms / Short, fat, hairy ones / Long, tall, skinny ones / See how the little ones squirm.” I can’t help but feel this is journalistic truth and should be respected for the gritty reportage it is. Katy jams along to the crude anthem and unleashes the bon mot of the episode: “Listen, Nico: You win at life. I’m not sure it’s American Idol, though. So it’s a no for me.” He wriggles out of there like a short, fat, hairy one and promptly eats himself.
He’s trailed by the S-T-A-R of the episode, a red-faced Arkansas kid named Noah Davis who swears the first thing he would buy as an American Idol winner would be an alpaca. Two things: (1) I too was a red-faced rosacea teen, so I’m paralyzed with empathy, and (2) we must be related, because my favorite animal is fellow South American camelid, the vicuña. Alpacas are fuzzy and jovial; vicuñas are glamorously lean and kind of look like Prince. That’s all you really need to know about Noah and me. He also gets a good moment of bonding in with Katy when he mutters, “Wig” under his breath (as in “I’m wigging out”) and Katy, like the monkey noticing a dot on its head in the mirror, also says, “Wig!” Lionel and Luke are confused and heterosexual, and Katy stops them from asking questions: “It’s not your language. It’s just for us.” Legitimately cool and sweet. Noah’s piano-accompanied take on Rihanna’s “Stay” didn’t improve on the original, but his guilelessness makes him feel like a contender. That won’t be true in Hollywood Week, but it’s a lovely sentiment for now. Maybe he’ll even bring wigs to Hollywood, which is the kind of update this show is craving.
Finally, a pretty vocal: Disney superfan Alyssa Raghunandan takes on Ariana Grande’s “Almost is Never Enough,” and I have to say, I like it better than the original. Ariana Grande, like Ron from earlier, always sounds like she’s imitating a past diva to me. She has the talent to pull it off, but I demand authority and self-possession from my divas, not play-acting the look and feel of authority. (I did enjoy that Ariana and her huge ponytail looked like a talking Chicken McNugget from an ‘80s McDonald’s commercial for a few years, though.)
Sardor Milano, our most gel-slicked contestant of the evening, won Russia’s version of The X Factor, yet in front of Lionel, Katy, and Luke, he sings like Marv getting electrocuted in Home Alone. That’s too bad. Mind you, no Russian version of The X Factor is serious unless t.A.T.u. is involved, so it was probably a joke. Meanwhile, Zach D’Onofrio, who is a friend of Nehru jackets, skates on by to Hollywood with a robo-debonair take on “The Way You Look Tonight.” Stilted, but almost intentionally so — think Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Our final contender Dennis Lorenzo is soft-spoken, but he handles Allen Stone’s “Unaware” with a fluttery, whimsical quality that — at the very least — feels unforced. For a TV show that honestly doesn’t have to exist anymore, a performer who can lighten up a room is deeply therapeutic. It’s one of those sacred moments you collect when watching Idol: It’s that Bo Bice “In a Dream” moment or even a Didi Benami “Rhiannon” coo, when performers sidestep contrivance and give us a moment that needs no host or judge to trumpet it. Oh, I can’t believe it’s happening to me: Some people wait a lifetime for a reboot that’s remotely tolerable. For now, dawg, I’m in.