Folks, let’s kick this thing off by looking in the mirror and being honest with ourselves: The last time American Idol was actually at the center of the pop conversation was during Season 8, in 2009.
That go-round saw Paula Abdul take a final lap as judge on the then-Fox series, while Kris Allen, Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta — good ol’ “Kradison” — duked it out for the pop competition’s big prize. That May, guitar-strumming Allen somehow triumphed over cock-rock revivalist Lambert, but the latter won a much bigger crown by becoming the last Idol contestant most non-fans can still pick out of a lineup in 2018.
Think these are heresy-fueled ravings, Idol apologists? Then ask yourself: Who replaced Paula Abdul as a judge in Season 10? Who won Season 11? Who was the runner-up in Season 12? What year did Season 13 air? Name the coronation song by the Season 14 winner? Spit out the name of any contestant from Season 15’s Top 10.
The bottom line is that by the time Fox shuttered the series in 2016, most of us had long ago tuned out and hitched our eyeballs to shinier, newer TV talent contests, some of which mercilessly sprung up like hydra heads when the OG began to show its first signs of aging. And that was that. Until it wasn’t.
A mere 22 months after the final notes were chirped during American Idol’s swan song on Fox, the televised dog-and-pony act returned, via ABC, on Sunday (March 11). Perhaps future broadcast scholars will smack a pointer stick on a chalkboard and note that this was the exact moment when TV reboot culture jumped the Left Shark. But until that happens, let’s run through what all went down on the 2.0 series debut.
A star-spangled panoply of schmaltz involving weddings, birthdays, fireworks and flags — not to mention some of the faces of the new season’s hopefuls — ushers in Idol’s second coming at the top of its two-hour premiere. Carrie Underwood, the franchise’s last true superstar, does the honors of dropping words of inspiration over the segment. “The journey will take us to every corner of this country, with no voice left unheard,” she lets viewers know.
On cue, Ryan Seacrest, another familiar face, stares at the camera with tongue planted in cheek, and states, “We’re back. I’ve waited a lifetime for this.” The veteran show host introduces spanking new judges Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan and Katy Perry. So far they all all seem to be playing nice with each other, so if you’re looking for any hint of cracks in Idol’s fairly squeaky clean facade, you’ll just have to wait and see how headlines involving Seacrest and Perry’s respective scandals and controversies pan out in the days to come.
The rest of the night ambles along at a familiar pace, as we’re mostly introduced to decent singers like bespectacled goofball Catie Turner from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, who refers to the boom mic above her as a “corn cob” and laments, “What if Katy Perry thinks I’m strange?” The charismatic 17 year old skips school to audition in New York with a cutesy original folk-pop tune called “21st Century Machine.” The judges are all smitten with Catie, with Lionel referring to her as a wonderful Martian. (I was thinking more along the lines of a less-polished Lisa Loeb, but sure — tomato/to-mah-to, Lionel.) And away she goes with a trio of yeses.
Also off to Hollywood are Maddie Poppe, 19, who plucks her guitar while reinterpreting Kermit’s Muppet Movie classic “Rainbow Connection,” and Ron Bultongez, 21, who hails from Plano, Texas by way of the Congo in Africa. Ron also plays guitar, and he offers up his spot-on James Bay impression while belting “Let It Go.” Country hitmaker Luke finds the performance “pretty daggum inspiring,” but Lionel and Katy initially aren’t hearing Ron’s own personality shine through. After a commercial break, however, Lionel offers Ron a stay of execution and changes his vote to a yes.
Next up is musical theater actress Koby — no last name needed, apparently — a Denver native keen on referring to herself in third person. (“Koby prepares!” she triumphantly points out to viewers.) The opera-trained 26 year old tanks spectacularly by blowing out the judges’ eardrums with her original song “Never Stops.” Katy shatters Koby’s illusion by informing her, “I think people are not telling you the truth,” and the mononymous diva is sent packing back to the Rockies. Before she splits, Koby deems the judges to be “dumbasses” and quips, “I think Katy is just a little jealous.” With that, she easily becomes my favorite contestant of the night.
The newly restored Idol machine rolls down to Nashville to scan the perimeter for talent. It’s here that 16-year-old Harper Grace takes a second shot at fame after previously going viral for all the wrong reasons at age 11. The then-preteen Texan butchered the National Anthem during a nationally televised soccer game. She even got a mention for the dirty deed at the time from Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts. However, Harper finds her redemption by impressing Lionel, Katy and Luke with both her original tune “Yard Sale” and an acoustic take on Khalid’s “Young, Dumb & Broke.” Katy announces that Harper is “kind of like a dream for Hollywood to carve out,” which sounds more menacing than complimentary, to be honest. But, hey, Harper — welcome to showbiz.
Similarly, 16-year-old Kentucky waitress Layla Spring also makes the cut, but not before Lionel warns her, “I don’t want to give you that opportunity and then you get [to Hollywood] and it destroys you.” Despite these ominous words, the music legend and his two cohorts send Layla through. Be vigilant, girl.
Idol would be nothing without encouraging at least a few contestants to make absolute jackasses of themselves in front of the cameras. Two such gents are Oklahoma electronics store cashier Benjamin Glaze, 19, and hungover Long Beach, California rocker Nico Bones, 22. During Benjamin’s Nashville audition, he admits that he’s never kissed a girl before. Naturally, this gets “I Kissed A Girl” singer Katy to sneakily plant one on the flabbergasted singer. Later, in Los Angeles, Nico gives a terrible, but un-self-conscious, plugged-in performance of nursery rhyme “Nobody Likes Me (Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms)”. Katy’s only response is a hearty belch.
All of this said, neither Benjamin or Nico hold a candle to Sardor Milano, 26, who somehow won The X Factor in Russia a few years ago. Now living in Orlando, Sardor informs us that he has “a big range” and can sing “the male part and the female part” of songs. He’s also in possession of traffic-stopping blue Nikes that prompt Lionel to declare, ”Love the shoes, babes.” Sardor shrieks his way through Luke James’ “I Want You” with such conviction that surely Klaus Nomi’s wig levitated from the grave. None of the judges know what to say, and after a few painful moments, Sardor is thankfully shown the door.
Speaking of wigs, Katy bonds with Arkansas nursing major Noah Davis, 18, who plays piano while belting out Rihanna’s “Stay.” He earns a golden ticket, and Katy tells him that her wig was snatched by his audition. Luke is utterly confused at this strange and foreign terminology. Cute.
Katy is later near tears after high school sophomore Alyssa Rhagu sings Ariana Grande and Nathan Sykes’ duet “Almost Is Never Enough” during her Orlando audition. “You’re Top 10,” the “Roar” singer tells the 15 year old hopeful. Luke adds, “You’re so easy on the ears.” With Lionel also on board, Alyssa sails on through to Hollywood. Gosh, these judges are easy like Sunday morning.
Zack D’onofrio, 16, and Dennis Lorenzo, 26, are the final two to make it through. They are also perhaps the first contestants we should firmly keep our eyes on in Season 16. Sock-obsessed Zack auditions in New York. (What’s up with the continuity, Idol?) We learn that he has a somewhat unusually high-pitched speaking voice, but a much deeper singing voice. The Florida teen’s unexpected take on Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” is so extraordinary that it motivates Katy to her feet and into Zack’s arms for a dance.
Equally impressive is Dennis’ smooth rendition of Allen Stone’s “Unaware.” Pair that with his tailor-made-for-Idol backstory — Dennis’ dad was killed when he was 5; his grandparents bought him a guitar at a young age; he moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and lived in a tent for awhile — and his golden ticket feels almost inevitable.
Thus, American Idol 2.0’s inaugural episode on ABC ends on a predictable note. And it seems just like not-so-old times.