Is this latest version of Fox’s “American Idol” much more engaging than I expected it to be? Or does it just look better than it is when compared to the network’s other monster talent show, the egregiously overproduced “The X Factor”? These are the questions that have been on my mind while watching “Idol” the last couple of weeks.
As it happens, I’m enjoying “Idol” this season, which comes as something of a surprise. There are several reasons for this. First, I really enjoy NBC’s “The Voice,” but my overall interest in talent competition shows isn’t without limits. With two “Voice” cycles per year, I’m a lot less eager about “Idol” than I used to be. Second, I was initially unimpressed with the new panel of “Idol” judges and dismayed to learn that the show was returning to the four-judge format, which has never worked in its favor.
But here we are in the second month without “The Voice,” which has allowed “Idol” to once again stand out as the biggest and brightest talent show on television, at least during the darkest weeks of winter. And new judges Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban are proving to be welcome additions to the franchise. (Whoever leaked that video of Minaj and Carey sharing a snit-fit early on in the audition cycle did a huge disservice to the show. I think it turned off many people who had planned to watch the refurbished “Idol” but decided otherwise after seeing that clip. When finally seen at full length and in proper context, the spat wasn’t nearly as epic as suggested. Nor was it indicative of the way the two women treat each other.)
Minaj, fascinating to watch, is whip-smart when it comes to isolating and critiquing talent, bringing much warmth to her commentary even when she’s being tough. She’s proving to be the first “Idol” judge since Simon Cowell to really bring something special to that table. Urban brings a huge heart and a keen understanding of music to the proceedings as well. (His time as a judge on “The Voice” in Australia served him well.) Carey hasn’t revealed any special skills at assessing talent, but she certainly brightens up the show.
What’s really interesting is that the blazing collective star power of these three individuals hasn’t overpowered the energy, enthusiasm or general entertainment value of the contestants. Still, the new judges have overshadowed the presence of veteran judge Randy Jackson, who doesn’t stand out the way he once did. But it’s nice to see a familiar face in the mix, even if that means tolerating the slower-moving four-judge format.
Of course, my assessment of “Idol” this season is based on several weeks of pre-taped, gingerly edited audition shows and the first of the carefully prepackaged Hollywood weeks. The latter are proving more impact-making than in recent years, because the guys have been separated from the girls during this crucial period in the weeding-out process, and because the hopefuls have been placed in pre-arranged teams, rather than being allowed to form teams on their own.
These surprising new twists have energized this phase of the competition. It was absolutely fascinating to watch so many young men attempt to breeze through the first Hollywood week without bothering to learn the words to the songs they were given to perform, and to see the looks on their faces when the judges called them out on it. (That said, the judges were entirely too supportive of a number of the lazier contestants, allowing them to move through.)
As for the audition shows, at this stage I’m wondering if anything can bring new life to them. Even with new judges in the mix they now feel more like a necessary evil than an essential component of an otherwise entertaining franchise. The fresh fun of the blind “Voice” auditions might have something to do with this. So might the absence of Cowell. His cutting put-downs of talent-free individuals who thought they were “all that” were priceless. He may have been hard on the hopefuls, but he knew exactly how to engage the home audience.
Regardless, there is a renewed emotional connectivity running throughout “Idol” at the moment, which has as much to do with the savvy casting skills of its many producers as with the judges’ abilities to identify promising singers. That bodes well for the arrival of the live shows in early March, when we’ll really see what the judges and the finalists are made of.
There isn’t much more to say at this point, except that watching talented young Kayden Stephenson choke Wednesday night was heartbreaking. I would have chosen to keep him in the competition rather than send him home, but the judges decided otherwise. I trust the producers will bring this awe-inspiring kid back to perform in the season finale.