American Idol Goes Back to the Future

American idol

American Idol is back. On a new network (ABC), and sporting three new celebrity judges (Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan). That’s a quick summary of what’s changed.

What hasn’t changed? Well, almost everything else. After a two-year hiatus, ABC’s reloaded version of Idol is almost exactly the same reality singing competition it was for 15 seasons on Fox—for a whopping eight of which the series was the most-watched show in America.

American Idol debuted in 2002, preceding a whole raft of enormous cultural changes that are now firmly a part of our everyday lives. Consider: When Idol first invited fans to vote, most called in on landlines—what we simply called our phones back in the day. There were no smartphones or iPods or iTunes or Facebook or selfies. No YouTube, no Twitter, no Instagram or Snapchat. Can you imagine? No wonder it was the most popular show in America: People didn’t have anything else to do, right?

It’s hard to remember just how groundbreaking American Idol was at the time, inviting participation in an outcome in a way that was truly revolutionary at the turn of the millennium. But now, the template Idol established almost singlehandedly is one copied by almost every other reality competition that has followed. There’s nothing revolutionary here anymore.

Which begs the question: In 2018, are fans and viewers hankering for a reboot that almost isn’t a reboot at all, but merely a continuation of what’s come before? Longtime Idol producer Simon Fuller is apparently betting that they are, because very, very little has changed with regard to the show’s format. Ryan Seacrest returns as the show’s perpetually cheery host. Truly talented singers, many with heartrending backstories, seem as plentiful as ever. And the new slate of celeb judges, well, they seem to have about as much chemistry—or perhaps lack thereof—as the last round in Season 15. (That forgettable group consisted of Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr., in case you couldn’t remember. I certainly couldn’t.)

Initial response suggests that Idol’s “back to the future” strategy may be provoking a yawn more than a nostalgic smile. Sunday’s series debut drew a middling10.3 million viewers, a distant ratings echo of Idol’s heady heyday in Season 5 when it averaged 30.6 million viewers per episode.

Then again, nothing in our fragmented TV era attracts that many eyeballs consistently anymore. Indeed, even though 10.3 million viewers might not seem like many, American Idol’s debut was still the highest-rated show ABC has had on a Sunday night in nearly six years, according to Entertainment Weekly. So maybe there’s a bit of gas left in the tank yet.

As a longtime fan of the show myself, I found myself feeling ambivalent about Sunday’s series premiere and the second episode last night. Katy Perry sits in the center of the judge’s table, and that’s as it should be: Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan are merely window dressing for the megawatt star between them. At times, the judges’ interactions seem awkward and lacking the kind of chemistry that Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson effortlessly conveyed for so many seasons.

That said, the first two episodes still featured plenty of touching moments (such as Katy Perry crying during a paralyzed singer’s performance) and goofy ones, too (such as Katy Perry dancing, falling down, and having to have her short dress covered up on the ground by an American Idol sensor circle). Performances ranged from amazing to painful, just like always.

Still, if there’s one thing that does feel different, it’s that this iteration feels a bit kinder and gentler. Simon’s acerbic criticism seems the thing of a meaner bygone era. Katy, Luke and Lionel let the talentless singers down easily. The shockingly blunt criticisms of yesteryear are gone forever, in keeping with our more sensitive age. Simon-style bullying is out; affirmation is in.

By the time I got done watching the second episode, it almost felt as if American Idol had never gone away at all. But that appeal to nostalgia (if one can really experience nostalgia after only a two-year break) is likely the show’s paradoxical Achilles’ heel as well: It also felt like something from a bygone age. And Perry’s antics and theatrics notwithstanding, I’m reasonably certain that this rebooted version won’t run another 15 seasons. Nor will it ever be the once-dominant, culture-shaping force it once was—no matter how hard Ryan Seacrest smiles or how emphatically he announces, “This … is American Idol.”

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