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'Idol' Takes A Hugely Unexpected Step Toward Being Much Less Terrible

Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr. appear on a surprisingly non-terrible <em>American Idol</em> opener on Wednesday night.
Michael Becker
Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr. appear on a surprisingly non-terrible American Idol opener on Wednesday night.

It's just me now, I thought this morning. All alone. I could almost hear the desert wind. I could almost see the tumbleweeds.

I once had a whole posse of sometimes bashful American Idol-viewing friends. We followed along, we had favorites, we lamented terrible decisions. I had a special touch for powerfully disliking from their first on-screen appearances everyone who would eventually finish second. My best friend and I bonded powerfully over wanting to punch Constantine Maroulis' voice in the mouth. (And now he's a Broadway star, which I consider a cosmic joke of some sort.) I once lost an American Idol pool and actually resented it. (Only briefly.)

But my pals are mostly gone now. Somewhere along the line, as Steven Tyler prattled on and Mariah Carey was too cool for the room and Randy Jackson had the staying power of your last rattling cough of winter and it seemed like 26 identical dudes in a row emerged victorious, they all gave up. The last one only told me so this week. So now, with the new season starting, I knew that if I persevered, I'd be like the guy in that episode of Cheers who wants his old war buddies to show up and winds up singing "hinky dinky parlez-vous" with the barflies.

This morning, I sat down with a screener of the 13th season, having extraordinarily low expectations, despite the fact that they changed judges again. After all, that's what they always do when the show is boring, and it never works, and it's usually worse than when they started. Even people who seem like decent ideas often aren't (Ellen DeGeneres, a lovely person and amiable TV presence, didn't have the right temperament at all, given that she couldn't deliver anything except compliments without cringing.) This time around, they've brought back Jennifer Lopez, kept Keith Urban, thrown out Carey and Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson (finally!), and introduced Harry Connick, Jr., who's been a hoot when appearing on the show as a guest.

Perhaps, I thought, I can go too. I will leave the tumbleweeds behind, I will abandon this franchise in the dust, and I will go to figurative saloon after figurative saloon until I find the one to which my friends have decamped.

But something terrible has happened. There are new producers on board, and they have a few dangerous ideas.

They seem to believe that it's depressing to bring attention-starved, socially awkward people in front of wealthy celebrities to have their dreams brutally mocked. They seem to believe that people who are obviously auditioning as a prank are boring — that people who are not trying are less interesting than people who are trying. They seem to believe we want to hear about musicianship from the judges, just because they're musicians. They seem to believe humor should be participatory, a conspiracy between judges and willing, preferably talented contestants, rather than a slushie in the face from a bully.

They seem to believe it's okay for the judges to have different opinions about things, and for Connick to (non-jokingly) call out J.Lo and Urban for being overly infatuated with what Randy Jackson rapturously spoke of as runs, or as Connick more skeptically calls them, "licks." They seem to believe it's cool to have Harry Connick, Jr., a jazz musician, explain what he thinks sounds good using scales. Musical scales. Freaking music theory.

There's not a single person who auditions in a hilarious costume, unless you count a Patriots cheerleader who auditions wearing her Patriots cheerleader uniform. Almost everyone who doesn't make it walks in the door sincerely believing, not without cause, that he or she was a good singer.

The advice is solid, and sometimes surprising. Connick looks at people who have probably been told by everyone they know — not just blinder-wearing parents — that they have great voices, and he tells them, "I don't think you're a good enough singer." He points out to a 16-year-old that it's hard for her to convincingly deliver overtly dirty lyrics like "If I was a blade I'd shave you smooth" without crossing some sort of age-appropriateness threshold that he thinks is probably a bad idea. Not shameful, just weird. Others on the panel don't agree.

This has gone, in one episode, from a show where people walked in the door and could be instantly tagged as Joke Auditions or Successful Auditions to a show where a lot of people either barely get through or barely don't.

Hey, show. Nobody asked you to become fun again.

Stupid show.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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