Not Even Katy Perry Can Bring ‘American Idol’ Back From the Dead
Katy Perry is one of the best judges ‘Idol’ has ever had, but that’s not enough to justify the tired retread of the show that can’t be bothered to prove it deserves to be revived.
Maybe it’s because the news comes at you fast, man, and seconds last for decades in this media age. Or maybe it’s because the revolutionary singing competition was a wheezing gasp of its former self by the time it aired its so-called final season in April 2016. (Theoretical prize money to anyone who can name that last winner... or, really, any winner after Jordin Sparks in 2007.)
The funny thing is: Even though the show ended because its ability to crown pop stars, dominate the zeitgeist, or merely convince viewers to tune into an episode had completely dissipated, we are *still* getting lame Idol copycats, premiering at a confusing rate. (The Four, woof.) So given that we’ve cycled back to relentlessly producing Idol ripoffs, one could say it would almost seem disrespectful not to bring back the O.G.
It’s also, after watching the new premiere, a little bit akin to dancing on its grave.
That’s not to say that the new show isn’t any good. It’s just that we can’t imagine anyone caring either way.
The new rebooted American Idol premieres Sunday night, on a new network (ABC) with Ryan Seacrest back as host. (How’s that for bad timing?) Lionel Richie, country star Luke Bryan, and Katy Perry are the new judges, the latter earning a reported $25 million to listen to wide-eyed teens belt for their hopes and dreams. Aside from this trio of new faces, the show seems to be nearly exactly the same.
Does that make it pointless for the show to have returned? Or silly that it ever left? Considering that each subsequent year had critics practically willing the show off the air with obituaries of how it had faded to a shell of its former influence, we’d argue against the latter sentiment. But perhaps because we have been conditioned, after umpteen seasons of The X Factor, America’s Got Talent, The Voice, The Four, and who knows what else I’m missing, to expect nothing from the winners of these shows, Idol’s industry irrelevance is no longer a liability, but an expectation.
We’re in an age where networks don’t just pin high hopes, but essentially their only hopes on nostalgic interest in reboots of past pop-culture behemoths—ABC is debuting Roseanne just a few weeks after the new Idol debut—so the Idol reboot, at this point, seems less groundbreaking or thrilling than it does perfunctory.
The show itself seems to be in that mindset as well. While Roseanne or Will & Grace and their respective legacies offer intriguing sociopolitical reasons to revisit the series, or something like Gilmore Girls had a rabid fan base practically demanding its revival, the new American Idol can’t seem to find a real reason to exist again, other than it feels like it barely went away.
The premiere opens with a masterpiece of maudlin, the kind of manufactured honky that anyone who has ever watched Idol (a series that will later find Katy Perry making a joke about a teen boy’s balls dropping) will find wholly familiar. As such, the groan and eye-roll will kick in right on cue.
We open with twinkling piano keys over the sound of crashing waves, while a Stevie Wonder quote scripts itself over B-roll of a serene beach: “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.” The new American Idol, brought to you by the country’s most insufferable spa.
Soon we swan dive off those Stevie Wonder cliffs and into a pool of velvety, Grade-A reality TV cheese, the kind we thought we’ve all grown intolerant to over the years but which Idol insists on force-feeding us anyway. “From your first lullaby to dancing with your first love, music finds a way of seeping into your soul and moves you like nothing else can,” the voice of Carrie Underwood narrates as we’re treated to an endless montage, the theme of which seems to be Americans... being alive?
Finally, Ryan Seacrest himself shows up. “We’re back!” he bellows. “I’ve waited a lifetime for this,” which is an odd way to characterize a period of time shorter than the span between my last dentist appointments (I really do have to go back). But go for that melodrama, Ry.
He introduces us to the crowds waiting to audition, and, as always, they are banshee-wailing their excitement as if producers are behind them poking them with cattle prods. Idol sort of pioneered this exercise in aggressive energizing that we like to think has become passe, the idea that viewers won’t recognize that something fun is happening unless your TV speakers are blown out by people shrieking, signalling that FUN IS HAPPENING!!!
We harp on all of this bombast largely because the show forces us to. It’s more than five minutes before we meet our first contestant, and she’s the first in a revolving door of Idol hopefuls that we’ve seen before, over and over again, and therefore barely leave an impression.
There’s the singer-songwriter teenager who is odd and awkward, which we know because she tells us roughly seven times that she’s odd and awkward. She sings fine. There’s the teenage boy with the high-pitched talking voice, but who croons like Frank Sinatra. He sings fine.
All the boxes are checked: the annoying musical theater girl (who is for some reason always vilified by these kinds of shows), the overweight kid with a voice that could melt butter, the country gal leaving the farm for the first time, and, the favorite, he who has overcome grave adversity through his love of music. When their sob-story human interest packages start playing, you can practically finish the script yourself.
Some things are different. There’s accompaniment when they audition, for one, and they can even play their own guitars, a shift that’s reflective of the show’s eventual transition away from Whitney Houston karaoke to a swarm of subway buskers.
Still, there’s a comfort food element to it all. If you’re like me and find the roughly 10 hours of The Voice that airs each week to be perfectly pleasant background noise while you do chores around the apartment, the new Idol surfaces as a more-than-worthy substitute.
The real draw then, especially given how far away we are from the live performance shows and how little real hope we have for the season to produce an actual new recording artist superstar, is the judges. To that regard, consider this The Katy Perry Show. And honestly, that’s a pretty good thing!
Idol diehards might remember Perry as the best—and perhaps only good—celebrity guest judge the show ever had: not only astute with her critiques, but forceful in her conviction (leading to one particularly memorable spat with then-judge Kara DioGuardi).
She’s even more at ease on camera this go-round, breezily tossing off the kind of corny one-liners and entendres you want from the judges on shows like these while remaining present and thoughtful while adjudicating the contestants.
Following her lead, this is a kinder American Idol. Gone is the exploitation of “joke” contestants, and supercharged is the emotional manipulation. (These days, being mean isn’t exactly good for the celebrity brand, after all.)
There’s an appealing genuineness each time Perry delivers a heartfelt platitude to a contestant. She hams it up, sure. But, truthfully, she exhibits far more restraint than we would have expected. If anyone bothers to watch, we could see this show doing well for Perry’s image. Is she worth her $25 million paycheck? LOL. But she’s certainly not phoning it in.
As for Richie and Bryan? They’re there. There’s a slickness and professionalism to this judges’ table. No one is fumbling, and no one is pandering for the spotlight. But neither makes an impression in the way that Perry does. Their chemistry is basically just that they all seem like pretty nice people.
This is a lot of words to essentially say: If you’ve seen American Idol before, you know what you’re in for here. That’s neither an endorsement nor an indictment, but this reboot so aggressively plays down the middle that it doesn’t seem to be seeking one either way.