Search For Superstar

'American Idol' Premiere Review: The Clown Show Is Back and We Love It

America’s favorite singing contest debuted its thirteenth season with a focus on talent over wackiness. But the show is still fun. We're loving (almost) every minute.

Michael Becker/FOX

American Idol premiered Wednesday night and, blessedly, the veteran reality circus seems to have ditched the clown show. Gone are the crazies, the attention whores, and the exploitation of broken dreams. Renewed is the focus on people who can actually sing, the search for a superstar. This is a good thing!

That's because, really, it's Idol, the show itself, that's become the clown show. And you know what? Most people like clowns. So most people will like this new iteration of the show, with the rejiggered panel of Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr. and the refocus on positivity. Sure, there's that fringe group of weirdos who are deathly afraid of clowns. But those people have, let's face it, probably always found American Idol a 12-year waking nightmare. They were never going to like any version of Idol.

The rest of us—we can at least appreciate the silly strides the show has made to remain entertaining, 13 seasons in. Even if those strides have become, at times, absolutely freaking insane. (But kind of in the best way.) Take how the episode begins, for example.

It's a black screen. White letters appear: "Contestant #45201, Detroit." Is this the season's twist? Do the contestants no longer go by names? Dramatic, thumping music begins. As the beating heart of the bass intensifies, #45201 boards a steel shaft. I AM SCARED. Forget the tagline "this is American Idol." This is The Hunger Games. They're sending this poor girl into the Arena.

After a tense ascension, a green light flashes. Another note, perhaps a warning, appears on the screen. "Life can change. In a heartbeat." WHAT!? IS SHE GONNA DIE? Harry Connick Jr. says, "Howdy." BE CAREFUL, #45201! Think like Katniss. He may seem friendly. But trust no one!

She gets a golden ticket. Is she the next American Idol? OR WILL SHE DIE? "You will decide," the screen says. OH MY GOD! NO! "The journey starts now." HOLY SHIT!

We later learn that #45201 was sent up in something called The Chamber, which is, seriously, a new element of this year, a vestibule that gives the contestants one last moment alone before having their dreams made or dashed by a male Australian country singer with a Brazilian blowout and mascara. Excuse me, it's #TheChamber. With a hashtag.

A little gimmicky? Oh yes. But we're a nation who watches two cycles a year of a singing competition where celebrities judge singers while sitting in oversized swiveling thrones. You gotta have a gimmick, right? Though that's arguably true, despite the oddly intense and borderline petrifying Hunger Games opening the Idol premiere was refreshingly skimpy on those insufferable bits that used to account for 80 percent of these two-hour audition episodes: the parade of wackos, the kitschy montages, the stilted skits put on by Ryan Seacrest and crew.

In fact, the premiere was less like the reality TV show we've come to know and more like a Justin Bieber concert film. And you know what? That really works. At the very least, it's different from what flood of rival competitions that we're told are threatening Idol's dominance. It's polished. It's entertaining. And it's still committed to finding good singers.

That doesn't mean Idol hasn't lost all its weirdness. Oh, it's still there.

Take another early contestant. Is he going to sing—wait, no—he's twerking! It's a post-Miley world so of course he's twerking. Wait, no—now he's singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." No, now he's singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" while twerking? This makes no sense! Has someone checked Judy Garland's gravesite to see how many times she's rolled over in it? What is this? Why, this is American Idol!

"This is your story, America," Ryan Seacrest tells us. What!? Don't put this on us, Ryan! That's not fair. OK, maybe it is. As the two hours dragged on, you gradually come to terms with that.

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Take, for example, that this is "the best panel we've ever assembled," as Seacrest informs us. With all respect to Paula Abdul, he may actually be right. Sure, Harry Connick Jr. may have been confused into thinking that excessively doing the bait-and-switch "I didn't like you…I loved you!" critiques was charming, when it's really just the equivalent of Borat botching that "NOT!" joke over and over again. But he's pretty and, unlike most of the show's recent hosts, seems to genuinely be having fun. In fact, all three judges seem to be having fun. And with each other! Imagine. (Need anyone be reminded about Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj?)

Ever since Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul turned friendly bickering into must-see TV over a decade ago, every reality TV competition has tried to replicate that dynamic, all the way through to Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine's love-hate relationship on The Voice. In not doing so, this Idol panel is actually a breath of fresh air. Fresh, friendly air.

Of course there are still gems of cattiness. Harry Connick Jr. starts explaining to J. Lo what, you know, singing is, and she responds with "you know too damned much." Actually Connick spent a lot of time talking about singing technique, and how vocal trickery is sometimes just that—melisma meant to distract us, and, apparently, J. Lo in to being impressed. This is not a joke. There are actually judges on a singing competition talking about singing. Of course Connick also spent a good amount of time pretending to do gymnastics with Keith Urban and at one point cradled a contestant in his arms like a baby. What can I say? Clowns, all of 'em. Love 'em or loathe 'em.

Between all the clowning, the show cycled through dozens and dozens of singers. Like, good singers. So many good singers that you, as an audience member, find yourself starting to become discerning. What a luxury for an Idol fan, so used to weathering pitchy fool after fame-starved idiot that when any person bleats a remotely in-tune note you're ready to crown them the next Idol on the spot. This premiere seemed to take its mission seriously as a talent search. And 13 seasons in, if you're still watching, you actually may be more excited than ever to embark on it.

Especially with a few clowns to make you laugh along the way.