Stephanie Schomer - Entertainment Weekly, Jan 7, 2015
January is a magical time. Sure, it’s the start of a new year—but while ambitious folks across the country are joining gyms and stocking up on leafy greens, a very special, very loyal part of the population is feeling hopeful for another reason: American Idol is back. The dinosaur of a show kicks off its 14th season tonight, and while it may have lost some 20 million viewers during its lifetime, a solid 10 million of us are still in it to win it, dawg—still hping to witness the birth of pop music’s next Kelly Clarkson.
Real talk: This show is probably not going to yield any more superstars. (But please, Idol, prove me wrong!) Good old Phil Phillips is the closest we’ve come in years, and he’s no Carrie Underwood. That said, we should still watch. Here’s why.
The show knows it’s broken, which isn’t really its fault; Idol‘s just getting old, like its viewers (present company included). But the show isn’t giving up yet, and the changes this season will see are quietly impactful and on-brand. The most notable difference is that there’s not a single judge or mentor left from the original cast. Hell, the only thing we have left from the olden days is Ryan Seacrest, a person whose existence we should all be grateful for every single day. Randy Jackson has finally crawled (been led?) away from the show, and his most recent role as mentor has been passed to Big Machine Records’ Scott Borchetta, a.k.a. the man who discovered Taylor Swift. So, upgrade; we’re already more relevant.
Season 14 will also free viewers from what became a really painful and really boring results show. Performances and eliminations will live happily together in a single night—great news for anyone who is trying to stick with this show or simply has a life. Because who honestly has the time to watch a weird Ford commercial followed by someone’s dreams being crushed every single week?
But that’s all technical. Let’s talk about the judges: This sweet, sweet trio of pretty people is the best panel we’ve ever had on Idol. On occasion, I miss the insanity of Paula or Mariah, but the combination of Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick Jr. is one that doesn’t make me feel guilty for watching; the judges’ table is no longer like a car wreck you can’t look away from. These three are thoughtful, playful, and most importantly, they’re invested. They want these kids to succeed; they want them to be better. And they all have advice to offer. (Seriously, take the best parts of each and you could cobble together the best pop star ever.)
Last season was a bit of a dud—there was plenty of vocal talent, sure, but the bulk of the contestants were light on personality and stage presence. (I blame this largely on Harry, who is easily charmed by technical know-how.) But this time around, the judges have pledged to find young hopefuls that have both pipes and the ability to command a stage. And because Harry doesn’t mess around, expect him to deliver on this promise.
The show’s lost a lot of fans to The Voice over the past few years, but here’s why I never got into the NBC hit: Idol is a competition for musicians, guided by celebrity judges. The Voice is a competition for celebrity judges, and the musicians play only a supporting role—which is probably why The Voice has failed to produce any real stars during its seven seasons. Folks tune in for Adam and Blake; the competitors are a bonus.
And contestants aside, Idol still holds a lot of power for viewers. This show, at its worst, gives us a reason to poke fun at people and critique abilities that we don’t have while a trio of celebrities adds commentary. At its best, though, it can stop you in your tracks. Katelyn Epperly’s season 9 performance of “The Scientist” still makes me cry. Anyone who watched season 4 remembers Carrie Underwood’s “Alone,” the moment we all realized she was going to be part of our pop-culture lives for years to come. Even in the abysmal season 13, runner-up Jena Irene delivered more than one show-stopping moment, the best of which was a heartbreaking version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
So now that I’m weeping, I’ll leave you with this: Stick with Idol. Give it another chance. At the least, you’ll feel something. At the most, the series will regain its footing and give us a chart-topping superstar (or maybe at least a hit single). Either way, you’ll enjoy the ride.