Without declaring victory after just one night, Harry Connick Jr. has almost single-handedly brought a sense of fun back to “American Idol.” Whether spoofing his lack of celebrity relative to Jennifer Lopez or clowning with Keith Urban, there’s an easy camaraderie among the judges that should make the show better company until the winnowed-down contestants can take over, and an emphasis on the feel-good — with slightly less schmaltz — under the new production team. While there’s probably no undoing the damage inflicted by having the too-similar “X Factor” mucking things up, at least Fox’s flagship competition program has gotten the mix right.
The two-hour premiere features several new elements, some appearing to bear the touches of Fox’s David Hill, who has assumed oversight of the shows and headed the entertainment division before assuming the helm at Fox Sports, where he flooded the screen with graphics and introduced a rollicking frat-house-style kickoff show. (Full disclosure: I briefly contributed to Foxsports.com while Hill was running the place.)
Among the tweaks are placing cameras in a room known as “The Chamber,” a kind of holding pen for performers right before they come out to sing. If it has a slightly “Big Brother”-ish quality (considering both the CBS show and Orwell’s original), it’s emblematic of a desire to present viewers a slightly different look, and a build-up that’s seemingly designed to resemble the Super Bowl pregame show. Small wonder Fox bills the show as “American Idol XIII.”
In something of a departure, there are virtually no freak-show aspirants in the opener. The rejections are also handled with a bit more sensitivity than at times in the past and, mercifully, no one is told they sound “pitchy.”
Foremost, with Connick’s addition and Lopez’s return, the program actually has three grown-up music stars serving as judges, with Connick displaying a charming sense of humor regarding the adulation heaped on Lopez. “We’re like bookends up here,” he complains to Urban, as contestants keep fixating on the diva.
Naturally, “Idol” is still heavy on crying mothers, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, Ryan Seacrest saying things like “This … is your show,” and an on-air script resembling a heart-disease public-service announcement that reads, “Life Can Change in a Heartbeat.”
All told, though, the show feels brighter and breezier, and initially avoids some of the heavier-handed pomposity “X Factor” exhibits during these rounds.
Of course, the churn of judges hasn’t benefited the show much as the ratings have slid – other than to give the press something to chew over – but even a weaker “Idol” is hardly chopped liver. Neither is improving a longstanding franchise such as this while on the fly and under the microscope, whether or not that turns out to be the Nielsen version of a golden ticket.