Different judges, different network, different theme song, same everything else. “American Idol” returns March 11 after a two-year break, but neither time nor absence have made an impact. “Idol” is as “Idol” was: Aspirational, polished, sentimental, unadventurous.
ABC posted the first episode for critics Thursday, and the immediate takeaway — new network aside — is that nothing has changed from the Fox years, or at least from the later ones. This is a new season, as opposed to a “sequel,” “reboot” or “extension.” If ABC had any better ideas, or production company Fremantle had any other ideas, they’re not apparent from this opener. You will recognize everything. “Idol” is back without missing a beat.
That can interpreted at least two ways. By taking the same old page by the same old playbook, ABC has declined to take risks with a franchise that had become hidebound — if not outright sclerotic — in the waning years at Fox. By the time “Idol” had ended April 2016, young adults ratings had dropped by a quarter over the preceding three seasons. The judges were expensive. The “superstars” were elusive. The buzz was long gone.
Then, here’s the other way: Those waning years were working just fine. In fact, that’s probably the better takeway here. Eleven million people were watching, but “Idol” was still hostage to a financial model that was established when 30 million were. Fox decided to cancel, with plans to renew by 2020. Fremantle had another time frame in mind.
So there’s really no reason for ABC to tinker, and every reason not to. These three judges — Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie — are costing well over $30 million, while host Ryan Seacrest adds another $10 million to the total. That’s most of the production budget right there, further limiting the impulse to tinker.
What will you see Sunday night, March 11? Close your eyes and recall what you once saw. That should about do it. The three judges are amiable, upbeat and gentle. They’re also incapable of criticism — either constructive or harsh. They’re gatekeepers as opposed to talent scouts. Everyone gets a yellow ticket to Hollywood! Or almost everyone. Pre-pacakged profiles indicate what they always have indicated: The classic “Idol” aspirants have dreamed of this their entire life, and after tilting against the fates or hard luck, they’ve finally got their shot at stardom.
Country music arrives at the 30 minute mark, and never leaves. This “Idol” — like “The Voice” — knows where the bulk of viewers will come from. “Idol” had long ago become a pitch for the hearts and minds of a different America — where lots of people still watch shows when the networks schedule them, and who don’t consume their music by the byte. “Idol” is deeply, unashamedly conservative. That should work in its favor, too.
Is the new “Idol” good? “Good” isn’t a term that applies here and hasn’t in years. The right question is this: Is the new “Idol” comforting.
Absolutely. It’s a soft down pillow, a gentle bromide for turbulent times. Ageless, old-fashioned, congenial, reassuring, “Idol” was always about verities that were never true in the first place but after enough production polish seemed just about eternal. The illusion was unyielding: Work hard, sing well, get the right breaks, and superstardom awaits. It hardly ever did but that was besides the point. The master illusionist was also a master salesman.
Thirty million won’t be watching this but maybe ten million will be. That should be enough. ABC appears to have not only made the right bet, but the safe one.