Why The Revival Of 'American Idol' Might Just Work

Mar 9, 2018
Originally published on March 9, 2018 7:03 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been nearly two years since we heard someone say...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

RYAN SEACREST: This is "American Idol."

SHAPIRO: ABC is bringing back the one-time hit musical competition on Sunday. The show was canceled by Fox, its first home. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says there are several reasons why this program should not have returned, but there's one powerful reason why it could work.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: After watching ABC's two-hour premiere of its "American Idol" reboot, I'm still not sure they answered the most important question. Why bring back this faded music competition now?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

CARRIE UNDERWOOD: And so the adventure begins to uncover the finest talent this nation has to offer.

DEGGANS: That's Carrie Underwood, one of the most successful "Idol" alums. She kicks off Sunday's episode speaking over a montage of video images but doesn't actually appear in the episode outside of a clip from her 2005 win. Still, her cameo might remind viewers of "Idol's" two other big-name alums - Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson. They actually appear on rival NBC's blockbuster singing competition "The Voice," which reminds me of something judge Luke Bryan says that hints at another problem for "Idol" 2.0.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

LUKE BRYAN: When you look at what we're trying to do with "American Idol," it's not about what me and Lionel and Katy are doing. It's about watching the star be born right there in front of your eyes.

DEGGANS: Country star Bryan joins pop star Katy Perry and R&B legend Lionel Richie as judges. And yet, as he says, the focus remains squarely on the hopeful contestants.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) But someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection...

DEGGANS: But focusing on unknowns keeps the new "Idol" from making a big splash. "The Voice" became one of NBC's most popular shows by focusing on its superstar judges instead of the contestants. And then there's Ryan Seacrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

SEACREST: Welcome back home to the place where superstars are born.

DEGGANS: Even though he's the host, Seacrest isn't featured much in the first episode. But he is the most visible link to "Idol's" past years ago as TV's most-watched show. His brand has been tarnished recently by allegations of sexual harassment that he denies. But there's one big thing the new "Idol" has in its favor. It has a huge heart. We see a geeky, super awkward girl deliver a wonderful original song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) People on the airwaves always preach who I should be, how to dress, how to talk, maybe how to breathe.

DEGGANS: And we hear from another hopeful who survived a tough childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And my dad was murdered when I was 5. Growing up without a dad, it was really tough.

DEGGANS: This is a show that often goes down like comfort food, full of sentimentality and positive emotion. We do see a few terrible auditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me just because I eat worms.

DEGGANS: But the show doesn't savor their awfulness or make fun of them like it did in the past back when tough Brit Simon Cowell was on the judges' table. In fact, Bryan, Perry and Richie seem to get along much better than some past judge lineups on "American Idol." Yeah, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, I'm talking about you. This new show doesn't come at you like the aggressive, pointedly grandiose hit that it used to be. But at a time when real-life events have left audiences hungry for familiar, soothing television, ABC's version of "American Idol" just might fit that bill. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN EAST'S "LIFECYCLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.