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American Idol’s premiere is familiar and icky, but new judges offer hope

Is it necessary? Was it missed? Do we really need this in our lives? Is it worth the time it takes away? No, but like the time change, American Idol is back on Sunday, whether we like it or not.

The production company that produces the show, FremantleMedia, made it abundantly clear to the show’s former home that this is a format they won’t change. And the show that ABC will air—I’ve seen the first, two-hour episode—is very familiar, starting with the many, many journeys that we’re all taking together to find out which people are what this show is all about.

At first, the show seems to be aspiring to be a marginally better version of itself, but ends up stumbling, falling into its old behaviors.

Carrie Underwood narrates a cold open about the effect of music on people, which transitions awkwardly to American Idol, a show will leave “no voice left unheard.” (Wait, really? We’ll be done after this season?)

There are other odd pronouncements, such as when Seacrest arrives on set, just a year and a few months after the Fox show ended, and declares, “I’ve waited a lifetime for this.”

Seacrest may be the face of the series, but he is minimized the first 10 minutes—not having him narrate the cold open is a clear choice—and starts off feeling more like background during the first hour. For example, he is not there before and after every audition.

I wondered if this might be related to his former stylist, Suzie Hardie, saying he harassed her for years, claims that included, as Variety reported, “grinding his erect penis against her while clad only in his underwear, groping her vagina, and at one point slapping her buttock so hard that it left a large welt still visible hours later.”

But that doesn’t fit with Seacrest’s American Idol image, and, as Sonia Saraiya writes in a must-read column about the immunity he’s been given, “it is convenient for many wealthy and powerful entities in the industry to believe him — and correspondingly inconvenient to believe her.”

A former colleague of Hardy’s confirmed her claims; an investigation by E! found only that there was “insufficient evidence.” So Disney/ABC, and NBC Universal’s E!, and FremantleMedia are doing what Seacrest did in a column: declaring that women are brave and should be heard when they tell their stories, but we should just completely ignore this woman while believing Seacrest’s unsubstantiated claim that she tried to blackmail him.

That kind of hypocrisy is something American Idol is particularly good at. It’s a show that positions itself as the embodiment of the American dream, and then turns people’s dreams into dollars for itself, frequently by making young people into mockeries, and, yes, sometimes turning them into stars.

During its vacation and shift to another, happier, “family-friendly” network, American Idol has not lost that mean streak. It’s just covered it up.

The mocking isn’t coming from an acerbic British judge, or from any of the judges, but from the producing and editing. While it’s not exactly the parade of ridicule that the show leaned into early in its life, the producers have delivered several delusional and bad singers to the judges.

Even when the person is a great singer, they sometimes still get shit on by the show.. In the first two hours alone, there are several This person is ridiculous and/or ugly so they probably can’t sing, wait, OMG did you hear that?! auditions, and one of them is introduced with the Andy Griffith Show’s theme song to make sure viewers have a strong sense of who he is etched into their mind before he starts singing.

The days of William Hung are not over for American Idol.

The premiere even features an extended segment that mocks an immigrant’s singing ability and uses that to slowly raise its middle finger to its competition, The Voice—a gesture that would have been fun if it wasn’t another example of the show being a giant industrial shredder while insisting it’s an origami teacher.

Katy Perry leads a strong panel of protective judges

While American Idol is still the show that locks one of the two exit doors and only uses footage of that mistake against the bad singers, it is also still the show that finds and elevates young vocal talent.

Leading that charge is a new judging panel that, at least in the first two hours, is less interested in critique than it is in a rapid education. Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan seem more concerned with protecting singers from the music industry than in feeding singers to it, and that is refreshing.

More than once, they’re cautious about who they send through to Hollywood, either doing so with warnings or sometimes saying no to someone who’s good but just not good for this. In the premiere, they don’t fully articulate their concerns, but they are concerned, even if that doesn’t always affect their ultimate decision.

“I just want you to understand: You’re going into the fire,” Lionel Richie says to someone who doesn’t quite seem ready but they send along to Hollywood anyway.

Perry, Richie, and Bryan have instant chemistry and are playful without turning the focus toward themselves. They even give themselves credit for doing that, another dig at The Voice, though an entirely earned one.

They’re natural and at ease with each other and the job, and usually clear and direct in their feedback, and this sportive trio is the best surprise about ABC’s version of the show.

I was initially concerned that the show was again going in the celebrity judge direction, and especially after her hosting of the MTV Video Music Awards, Katy Perry’s expensive casting did not give me hope. I couldn’t imagine how this could work. But it does!

Perry previously was criticized for a “wig snatched” moment during the VMAs, but in the premiere she uses the phrase (“wig snatched, flown, out the door”) with a contestant in a way that creates an instant moment of bonding and elevates that person, because she’s using it in a way to indicate how impressed and moved she is. It’s a reference that Luke Bryan says he doesn’t understand, but the contestant knows, and is emotionally affected by it.

That particular audition—I’m trying not to give much away here—starts with Idol’s worst tendency (ridicule) and ends with the show at its best (an expert identifying and affirming another person’s talent).

American Idol is several shows in one, of course, and the auditions are a different beast than the Hollywood rounds, and the live shows have their own energy (and more Seacrest). So the show has a lot of places to go, and a lot of time to do it: 38 hours and 19 episodes start Sunday at 8 p.m.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.