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'American Idol' review: Season 14 is designed for hard-core fans

"American Idol" returns with a special, two-night, three-hour premiere event Wednesday, Jan. 7 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) and Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015 on FOX. Photo Credit: FOX / Michael Becker

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The 14th season opens in Nashville -- the idea is to visit each of the judges' hometowns, and because Keith Urban has had his base here for the past two decades, this is officially his home. (Yes, "Idol" will visit New York and New Orleans at later dates for Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr., respectively.) On tomorrow's two-hour edition, Kansas City and more Nashville. (The July 23 audition from Nassau Coliseum will air later this season.)

MY SAY There's a contestant, a good one, who appears late in Wednesday's opener who will --  or should -- give devoted "Idolistas" a wallop of deja vu.

There's a reason for that: He went to Hollywood last season. (I won't give away the name.) Nothing wrong with this -- repeat contestants, even repeat offenders, have turned up before. What's disingenuous is how "Idol" handles him, as just another newcomer with a burning desire to leave the hardscrabble life behind. 

 There's no mention he was on the show last season. No mention he's been down this long dusty road before.

 Why? Who knows, and maybe it doesn't matter at all, or maybe the road is just too dusty and we can't see where we're going or "Idol" can't either.

 Or maybe, after 14 years, "Idol" has finally reached some sort of tipping point -- or zero sum transition point -- in its life span: All the best singers have been heard. Now we're hearing them again.

"Idol" indisputably needs a miracle this season. Why not this kid with the country pipes and a ready-for-prime-time style who just happens to have been on the show...last season? 

In fact, the idea of a "superstar" at the end of this process -- "we're in the business of making superstars and this year, business is booming," says Ryan Seacrest, without the faintest hint of irony -- now feels like some quaint holdover aspiration from the earliest days.

But the idea of a star who can keep remaining fans engaged? Ah, that's the (yellow) ticket, and that's what they'll get.

Sure we've seen all this before, and sure, we've heard it all before, too, and sure we've read all the doomsday stories and written a few of them ourselves.

 But there are some nice voices Wednesday night.

The judges still joke around. They even act like they like each other and I think they actually do.

The wannabes still wanna believe. 

 Even Ryan Seacrest ...well, he still sounds like Ryan Seacrest. 

And Nashville: That's a shrewd opening move, because almost all the winners have come from Southern states.

But listen carefully, and you, too, may hear the faint sound of a show that no longer has any fresh ideas, and in at least one glaring instant, even fresh contestants.

The zero sum game is afoot

GRADE B-

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