WHAT IT'S ABOUT “One last time” Fox mournfully proclaims, and we know what the network is (mournfully) talking about. The 15th and final season of “American Idol” begins Wednesday at 8 p.m., with auditions in Atlanta and Denver (San Francisco and Little Rock Thursday night). Our judges are back — Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr. — and a few past winners too, including Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks. (There’s also a surprise contestant; he gets a yellow ticket, but doubtful he’ll be going to Hollywood.) Expect a country twang for the launch. Meanwhile, Fox promises a season-long “celebration” of the past 14 seasons, starting with the first (which launched June 11, 2002).
MY SAY There will be plenty of time to say goodbye to “Idol” over the next few months, so let’s say “hello” instead. The object of my heartfelt salutation looks familiar indeed — an old friend up to his (or her) old tricks. There’s Ryan Seacrest, the world’s most casual billionaire, also greeter to the world on New Year’s Eve, and comforter-in-chief to aspirants on “Idol” the rest of the year (when he’s not running an empire or the Kardashians). He hasn’t aged a day over the last 14 years. Our three judges remain timeless as well — exemplars of good vibes, sage counsel and invocations against “pitchiness.” JLo, in particular, looks fabulous. She always has, always will.
Our stream of wannabes are, familiar too: Good kids with good voices and their heartfelt stories from the heartland. “This is the best batch of artists we’ve ever had,” Seacrest promises.StoryWatch Kanye West's 'American Idol' auditionCritic's rankingAll 11 ‘American Idol’ judges, rankedPhotos'Idol' LI auditions on Instagram
But move closer to the screen (or further — your choice). That familiarity, once so bracing, so fresh, suddenly looks threadworn. The judges go through the paces, their eyes (perhaps) on the next gig more than on the contestant. (JLo’s NBC cop drama, “Shades of Blue,” in fact begins Thursday, while Connick is prepping a daytime talk show.)
There are a handful of repeat contestants; a couple have even been to half a dozen audition rounds over the years. I counted two who had significant roles on “The Voice” — a fact surely known to producers and judges, even though they’re treated here like fresh newcomers with nary a music note to their resume.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course. Obsessives come through here all the time, and so does the occasional “Voice” contestant (though the NBC archrival is certainly never acknowledged). What’s wrong is that viewers know. But then viewers know everything these days. They see the repeats and "The Voice" contenders and reasonably assume that the talent pool has either shrunk or that "Idol" is mounting a shrewdly calculated production designed to suggest that it's bigger and better than ever.
Moreover, these omniscient viewers don’t need “Idol” to find them a superstar. That’s what YouTube or Facebook is for. not to mention Pinterest or Instagram. (Besides, they've already got their superstar and her name is "Adele.")
They don’t need to be schooled in “pitchiness.” There’s probably an app for that anyway. They create their own playlists, follow their own musicians and have carved out their own musical alt-universes on Spotify or Apple Music. They don’t need “Idol” for any of that either.
And yet my old friend trundles along as if nothing has changed in the 13-1/2 years since that first improbable summer. It’s one of the many charms of “Idol,” also one of the seeds of its demise.
I’m going to miss my old friend. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve all been through a lot with “Idol.”
But it is time to say goodbye.