Are we caught in a time loop? is a question you might ask yourself, upon turning on ABC’s “American Idol” for the debut of the show’s 16th season. In 2016, Fox gave the show a grand goodbye tour; a year later, ABC made a multi-million dollar deal for the franchise. It’s hard to term something a revival when it was gone for barely a year, but anyway, here we are. “American Idol” is back, and whether you like it or not, it’s ready to present to you the fresh-faced young American singers who want a chance to make it in Hollywood.
The new “Idol” is, of course, quite similar to the old “Idol.” But it is clearly Disneyified. The new season emphasizes the upbeat aspects of the competition and glosses over the heartbreak, as if the production is implicitly apologizing for the mechanics of reality television. When clearly awful contestants come in, most of the snark is left implied — as if the audience is being left to comment at home in their best Simon Cowell impression. The reality show sound effects — whatever those silly stingers and beats are — still prompt the viewer to feel one way or another about what’s happening on-screen.
But this is a decidedly less mean “American Idol.” The two-hour premiere begins with a schmaltzy montage about how music is what binds Americans together — which frankly doesn’t feel true, but sounds amazing. And in case you forgot about the corporate overlords, Mickey and Minnie Mouse mascots make an appearance in the two-hour premiere, during the auditions at Disneyland, in a bit of cross-promotion that we have come to expect from ABC.
Though there isn’t a Cowell among them, the judges’ panel makes passable competition for the judges on NBC’s “The Voice,” which is now the reigning singing competition in the land. Katy Perry, the first judge who signed onto the revival, is —pardon me — the dark horse of the group; sincere, tuned into the listeners, and surprisingly natural, for one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She demonstrates an ability to soothe the contestants and even flirt with them a little, in a way that appears to put them at ease. In one lovely audition, she gets up and slow dances with a contestant as he sings a Frank Sinatra number.
Lionel Richie is the other powerhouse; Perry, seated in the center, frequently turns to him as the voice of reason on the panel, and in turn, Richie often is asking his co-judges to pipe down so they can hear the contestants sing. Bryan is mostly there to be rugged and banter with Perry, but not necessarily in a bad way. The panel is so averse to delivering criticism that sometimes they fall silent; then Perry and Bryan turn and look expectantly at Richie, who is tasked with delivering the most adult spin on “absolutely no, never” possible. It’s unclear how sustainable this approach is — not least because of the paychecks pulled by all three and Seacrest, combined — but for now, anyway, it’s charming.
Overall, the new version of the show holds together well enough. “American Idol’s” episodes have always felt twice as long as they need to be, and the production’s mini-narratives for contestants, like so much unscripted television, still leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. But upon seeing these bright and enthusiastic kids, it’s hard not to feel their excitement. Not all of the contestants are young, the ones that are display an adorable and maybe terrifying comfort with the apparatus of the reality TV machine; one, a sock collector, brings a novelty pair for each judge, tailored to their interests. (Katy gets laser-eyed rainbow kittens.) But no matter how much the production tries, there’s no glossing over how overtly manipulative any reality show is. This Disneyified “American Idol” has a steep path ahead.