Tonight, the American Idol premiere will be screened at movie theaters across the country. But I was able to catch the episode via a FOX screener. Here are a few of my impressions.
The episode with a cold open. Detroit hopeful, Marrialle Sellars, steps into “The Chamber” before performing in front of the judges. “Life can change in a heartbeat” flashes on the screen, as the singer walks out to audition. After a soulful rendition of “Grenade,” while accompanying herself on guitar, the panel is impressed. “You are going to be a nightmare for the other contestants in this competition,” warns Harry Connick Jr. And she gets her golden ticket. Harry invites her to declare her intentions to the camera. “I am Marrialle Sellars,” the singer says, “and I plan on being the next American Idol.”
“Is she the next American Idol…you will decide…the journey starts now.” Don’t be confused though. It’s a Detroit audition that essentially kicks off what are Boston and Austin auditions. Marialle represents every contestant’s hopes and dreams. Not to mention that the producers REALLY seem to like her. She’s one to watch out for.
Interestingly, the production takes a cue from the X Factor, adopting a documentary style, with hand held cameras and quick cuts, following contestants and “eavesdropping” on conversations. Shots are cut up, Instagram style, with action going on simultaneously in different parts of the shot.
It’s this relaxed style that finds judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick Jr. discussing the responsibility of finding a superstar. As far as the type of judge he’ll be, Harry says “I have to be honest. To send somebody out of the room crying is a terrible feeling, But if it’s the right thing to say, I think you have to say it.”
And indeed, count on Harry to be the “truth teller.” But NOT like Simon Cowell, who seemed to relish carving delusional hopefuls up. Harry can be blunt, but he’s thoughtful. And unlike Simon, he is a musician who has an immense love and respect for his craft. He can be blunt, but he follows it up with constructive criticism, or specific advice, such as “singing is not for you.” The hopefuls nicknamed him “Harsh Harry.” But he’s not really. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and won’t blow smoke up a contestants butt. At least not during the auditions.
Harry has a quick wit. He’s gregarious, impish and REALLY funny. He seems to be having a blast at all times. And again, while he can be honest and even blunt, he’s always kind. Keith Urban is also hilarious, but in a quiet way. His humor is so dry, you might miss it. The two are perfect partners in crime. They have a bromance going, but the contrived gay subtext that’s between Adam Levine and Blake Shelton on The Voice is not happening here. It’s a friendship that’s organic, genuine, with Jennifer and her goosies, in the middle like a sweet mother hen.
The pundits who have seen the panel in action are correct. The chemistry is really good. Expect to be totally entertained by this panel. But then, the magic of editing can fix anything at this stage of the game. Even last year’s train wreck got good reviews after the premiere. The judges will prove their mettle when the shows go live in February. But until then, sit back and enjoy the fun.
At one point, Harry calls out Jlo and Keith on being impressed by vocal gymnastics. It happens in front of a hopeful who hasn’t met a run she didn’t like. The panel ends up passing on her. Afterward, Harry gives Jennifer a music lesson, explaining the pentatonic scale to her. She’s amusingly befuddled. But the best part? Harry has no intention of dumbing it down for America.
There are some impressive voices in this bunch of hopefuls. It’s true, now that auditioners are allowed to can play their guitars, the instrument is everywhere. The talent is young–lots of teens and early 20 somethings. And despite the preponderance of guitars, it’s also varied. Country singers, blues crooners, singers who turn pop songs on their heads, folkies and rock singers all play guitars–boys and girls alike. But not everyone is strumming away. There are impressive soul, gospel and pop singers too.
FOX producers have emphasized the lack of joke contestants this season. There are some bad singers. And a couple who don’t seem serious. They are dispatched with non-mean spirited humor, and sound advice. There are no silly costumes, nobody there to be held up for ridicule, no contestants out of the age range. None of the handful of bad contestants seemed planted by the producers (other than allowing them to advance).
There’s one dude who offers to twerk for the judges. He looks ridiculous. But when he opens his mouth to sing, he performs a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that isn’t half bad. Another guy named James, sings an original song. It’s terrible, but amusing. Harry tells him he was really cool, but “the voice wasn’t there.” No hard feelings as he leaves. There are NO profanity laced breakdowns in front of the cameras, from disappointed contestants.
Oh, and don’t worry. There are still back stories, involving dead relatives, childhood abandonment, and emotional struggle. You know, the usual. I can’t see Idol, or any competitive reality show letting go of the human interest story.
There’s “The Chamber,” which is a tiny cubicle, just off of the audition room, where contestants are held before the judges see them. There’s a camera inside. We get to see the hopeful in the moments before their lives change, perhaps forever. There were no dramatic chamber moments in the premiere. But the season is young. Some of you may recall the elevator ride contestants would take during past Green Mile episodes of Idol. The singer is trapped, in a small space, to deal with their nerves and anticipation. The Chamber is pretty much like that.
It remains to be seen if the new warm and fuzzy audition phase is going to click with viewers. There have been seasons that cut down on joke contestants, and I recall fans complaining. Bad auditions were necessary, the criticism went, to put the good singers in relief. A ying and yang kind of thing. The Voice doesn’t succeed because it’s warm and fuzzy. It has to do with the interaction of the all-star coaches. The competition begins immediately on The Voice, with the coaches vying for talented contestants to fill their teams. On Idol, the competition doesn’t really begin until the live shows.
Still, the producers have done the best they can in the new season, within the traditional Idol format. This judges panel is the most entertaining the show has ever had. We’ll see if its enough to keep the ratings steady. The producers have chosen to apply little tweaks, rather than wholesale changes to the format. Fear of alienating the Idol faithful further after last season–with its warring judges and lack of charismatic male singers–is likely the reason. Give the people what they WANT, and if the auditions are any indication, the producers are doing just that.