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'American Idol' Returns with More Hope, Less Cruelty
March 11, 2018  | By Roger Catlin

In its incessant promos, the rebooted American Idol has already indicated which direction it will be going, when it returns tonight after a two year absence on a new network, ABC.  

It’s all those back stories about singers doing it for their family, or taking their last shot, or telling their grandma they’re going to Hollywood.

All these hopes and dreams of young singers, who still think TV talent shows are the road to stardom — though the last several seasons of Idol and just about all of The Voice has failed to produce a chart topper.

The days of dwelling on the truly bad singers or the hair-trigger personalities who cry and curse after being rejected at auditions are gone. None of the judges are sharpening their cruelty to demolish the most misguided, as Simon Cowell famously did, helping bring a whole generation of these types of shows to TV internationally.

In the manner of the final seasons of Idol, these judges are both big names and Very Nice People, who are encouraging cheerleaders who share tears of joy with the young hopefuls.

Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan are filling the seats once held by a line of entertainers who obscured the contestants — Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr., Steven Tyler, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey among them, after Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul handled the first hit seasons.

Ryan Seacrest is the mainstay throughout the run, though his star has been tarnished by harassment allegations by his hairstylist.

But judges in these shows is where the bulk of the budget goes and this fresh trio says they’re taking it seriously.

Richie, 68, is by far the oldest judge ever selected for these shows, but his time as a hitmaker, from his days with the Commodores, to launching a successful solo career in 1982, to co-writing “We are the World” with Michael Jackson makes the Kennedy Center honoree legend-adjacent at least.

At a crowded cocktail party following a press session at the TV Critics Association winter press tour in January, he tole me  he, too, thought the singing competitions were something of the past.

“I thought it was passé,” he said. “Then they asked me a very important question: What do you think? Normally when you’re sitting in the privacy of your home and you’re critiquing everybody’s stuff, I said it’s lacking one thing: real. If you want real, I’ll get involved.”

Idol has grown into something of an unbeatable brand, Richie said.

“It’s like saying to me, Proctor & Gamble - are you tired of the soap?’ Nobody’s tired of the soap. If it’s good, you have to every once in a while, bring it back and refresh it and it moves forward. This twist of having qualified judges,” he said, quickly adding, “I’m not saying the other ones before, but that was the beginning, this is now.”

The three saw a lot of young people come in to audition, in part because they thought they missed the boat when Fox canceled the show after diminishing ratings two years ago.

“You’d be surprised how many kids grew up on just that show,” he said. “So what they said to me and to Luke and Katy, ‘Oh my god, when I found out I had a chance to be on the show…’

“Think about it,” he said, just before being grabbed to gather around a hotel piano and sing a chorus of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” with his fellow judges.

“I was thinking, in my era, if you got to American Bandstand, you got it. How old was that?” Richie said. “This is their modern day version of that destination.”

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