Ten seasons after it began, “American Idol” remains as relevant as ever.This time, though, the buzz isn’t about friction among the judges, falling ratings or a group of contestants that were largely critized for having limited commercial appeal. “I have to say this is the best season,” says exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, who took time off from the show to concentrate on his reality skein “So You Think You Can Dance.” “When I came back into it I said we have to bring fun back into the program and I think we’ve done that. I love the spirit of the judges and the camaraderie of the competition. Eveyone seems to be having fun again.” Gone are three of the four judges from last season: Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi. It’s back to a panel of three with Randy Jackson returning, joined by Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and singer-actress Jennifer Lopez. “We went into the season wondering if maybe the bloom was off the rose in terms of its cultural impact and influence,” says Matt Roush, senior TV critic for TV Guide, “but the show is reverberating throughout the world of TV.” And there’s not a mean judge to be found. But, wait, is that a good thing? “A year ago it was all about Ellen being funny and Simon preparing for his exit and looking like he couldn’t wait,” says Roush. “The tone is so much different this year. Though the judges are bigger than life, no matter how much the spotlight falls on them they try to deflect it back to the people on the stage.” USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco admits Tyler and Lopez are more endearing than many people expected. And, he adds, what’s helped boost their appeal is that they often act more like fans than judges. Maybe, counters Detroit News TV critic Mekeisha Madden Toby, that’s because Lopez and Tyler are professional singers, not music critics. “They remember what it was like and have a more emotional investment in these contestants,” she says. This year longtime producer and record company exec Jimmy Iovine became a permanent fixture, filling the role of industry vet who dispenses advice on a weekly basis. Roush says it adds an appealing dimension. “There’s an interesting tension created by whether the singer will stick to their own idea and vision, or cave to Jimmy,” explains Roush. Meanwhile, the singers — a group that ranged from country crooners, gospel singers and straight-up rockers — have created excitement not seen in many seasons. Metal-loving James Durbin offers a mix of showmanship and a compelling personal story (he suffers from Tourette syndrome and Asperger’s), to the smooth Scotty McCreery and the sweet sound of Lauren Alaina, this season simply boasts an eclectic and compelling bunch. There’s also been plenty of drama. First was the elimination of Casey Abrams, who received a reprieve from the judges and was brought back. That was followed by the surprising send-off of Pia Toscano, who many thought had the most natural voice of any Idol. How did it happen? Some call her a victim of teen-texting girls who favor “cute guy” contestants, a pattern that Bianco says appeared in season eight when Kris Allen won over the arguably more talented but flamboyant Adam Lambert. However, as has happened throughout the decade-long run of “Idol,” you don’t have to win to become a star. Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry and Lambert are all examples of Idol runners-up who are doing just fine in their careers. But despite the moves that left some fans — and judges — in a state of shock, Roush will remember the current season for bringing the show’s focus back to the contestants and the music. “There’s something about Scotty being a star or the story of James that, if he makes it to the end, has ‘American Idol’ written all over it.”
TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS
- The intense emotional reaction from the judges when Pia Toscano was eliminated and how flabbergasted everyone was by the exit of someone seen as a front-runner.
- The night when James Durbin departed from his usual heavier rock tunes and performed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame week.
- The early save of Casey Abrams and the look on his face as if he was going to pass out.
- The emotional breakdown of judge Jennifer Lopez during the Hollywood week phase of the competition when contestant Chris Medina was eliminated. Medina’s story is particularly moving because during his audition he brought along fiancee Juliana Ramos, who is confined to a wheelchair following a car accident.
- The outburst and outrageous tone of Steven Tyler, who often keeps the “Idol” censor on his or her toes. The lack of TV etiquette was just one element in a fun and surprising season.