Will a kinder, gentler, prettier American Idol, which embarks on its 13th season tonight, help bring viewers and verve back to Fox's once-mighty reality juggernaut? Can a lovey-dovey judging troika of Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. — who notably do not want to rip each other's hair out — stop the show's ratings swoon?
Uh, we think so.
Listen: The Voice is the best singing reality show on television. We're not going to pretend otherwise. But Idol used to be great entertainment, too; we yearn for those simpler days of Sanjaya. But too much emphasis on controversial judges — especially the unlikable chemistry between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj last year — has strayed the show from its comfy storytelling. When comparing the ratings for the 2012 and '13 finales, the show suffered a dip of more than 40 percent, though still managed 14.3 million viewers, a robust number in this fractured TV climate.
Still, it was the first time an Idol finale hadn't reached 20 million since the show's 2002 debut season. But we think TV's ultimate comfort food will make a tasty comeback. Here are a few reasons why:
After the departure of stalwart critic Randy Jackson and feuding divas Carey and Minaj, the producers — no doubt to cure their headaches and ours — opted for mellow, supportive, pretty. J.Lo, who helmed seasons 10 and 11, returns with Keith Urban, who joined the show last season. Connick is the newest judge, but he's been around Idol since season 9 as a mentor.
We watched a press screener of tonight's episode and, lo and behold, it was a pleasant experience, something that was rarely true of Idol last year.
With these judges, it seems Idol looked to The Voice for lessons on how a panel should interact. That show soars on its camaraderie, especially Adam Levine and Blake Shelton's bromance. Idol is in desperate need of that fun, that fighting-flirting that defined the Simon Cowell-Paula Abdul era.
Lopez, sitting between the hunks, is the focal point, the Paula, saying "yes" to every poor caterwauling kid.
The most interesting thing about Urban's Idol presence is his cutie-pie Aussie accent.
Connick is the most critical of the three, bringing much needed musical talk and technique. He even calls out J.Lo and Urban in the first ep on how easily they're impressed with mediocre singers. He's no Simon Cowell, but Harry does add some interesting texture, and we could see some sizzly tension with him and Lopez.
Connick is also the silliest one in the pack. There's a particularly hilarious running gag in the first episode about how no one is excited to see him in the same way everyone fawns over J.Lo. He plays it to the hilt. Bingo.
What Idol still has over The Voice — and every other reality throwdown — is Ryan Seacrest, a megastar in his own right: funny, cute, compassionate. We wouldn't be surprised if producers rely on his starpower more often, too.
With less distractions from the judges, the show can focus more on compelling contestants. In the footage we've seen, it looks like the wackier singers are being kept to scant punchlines, while genuine chops are being spotlit. Good call there.
Local fans should keep an eye out for a Bradenton singer named Sam Woolf who auditions in the premiere. He wows the judges (and us) with a rendition of Ed Sheeran's Lego House.