Grading first season of ABC’s ‘American Idol’ reboot

Gerrick D. Kennedy
Los Angeles Times
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When ABC revived “American Idol,” just two years after the curtain fell on its 15-season run on Fox, many wondered whether the show would be able to capture its old magic.

The show was years removed from its heyday, when 30 million viewers tuned in weekly to root (and vote) for aspiring singers like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert and countless others, with its final seasons at Fox mostly remembered for the cadre of A-list judges, sagging ratings and inability to launch a viable star.

Maddie Poppe reacts as Ryan Seacrest says she’s won “American Idol.”

ABC’s revival of “Idol,” which saw Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan fill the judges’ panel and the return of longtime host Ryan Seacrest, wrapped its two-night season ender Monday with the crowning of Maddie Poppe, a 20-year-old folk-pop singer from Clarksville, Iowa.

The two-hour finale drew 8.7 million viewers (about 13.3 million tuned into its “farewell” bow on Fox), but the real test has only just begun for the hopefuls and the season’s victor, who, as Perry advised, “need to make the most of this moment.”

With ABC already committed to a second season — Seacrest and the judges are all set to return — we thought it was worth grading the revived show:


On paper, Perry, Bryan and Richie couldn’t appear more dissonant — respectively, a pop chameleon, a country superstar and a distinguished crooner with more accolades than mantel space. But it mostly worked. They ultimately had far more chemistry than that of a number of previous superstar panels, even if Perry’s knack for slapstick distracted the process. (B+)


This season’s top 10 was the most diverse and dynamic crop of talent the show had seen in ages. There were powerhouse vocalists, performers who arrived to their first audition as fully realized artists just needing a shot (like eventual winner Poppe), singers who matured over the competition and talent that felt plucked from radio. Early on, audience favorites Michael J. Woodard, Cade Foehner and Gabby Barrett emerged as front-runners, and although none of them took the crown, they are at the top of finalists who, along with Poppe, legitimately have the best shot at making a lasting impression in the industry. (A)

Live shows

“Idol” live shows are without equal when it comes to singing competitions. Built around themes that can be imaginative (Grammy hits, arena anthems) or quite standard (Motown, country night), the live shows are where contestants truly get to show their range. The reboot unfolded on a far more truncated schedule, with just five weeks of live shows, about half of previous seasons. It left little room for the performances to really become interesting.

Because of the move to the Disney-owned ABC, there was finally a night of Disney tunes (mentored by the formidable Idina Menzel), and that turned out to be the season’s highlight. There was a night dedicated to Prince, but it was a double theme of the finalist’s birth year, and someone should have had the sense to reconsider mining the late icon’s canon alongside tunes from Jewel, Britney Spears and Brian McKnight; a Mother’s Day theme felt overly schlocky, which is saying a lot for this show. (D)

Viewer engagement

Each week, Seacrest boasted about how many votes had poured in. But it made us wonder who exactly was voting. This year’s top 10 was an extremely impressive group, rich in diversity — both in ethnicity and talent. There was a Latina drag queen with a bone-chilling vocal prowess that recalled Jennifer Hudson, a black lesbian whose wife was able to support her during the competition before being deployed, a bilingual performer and singers of different shades who genre-hopped with ease. Yet there seemed to be a massive disconnect, considering how the people of color were the first to go. Sure, it’s up to the viewing audience, but it was startling enough to cause a judges’ intervention, an online backlash and be the subject of interviews for contestants. (D+)


Let’s start with the good. That Disney-esque fairy tale reveal that the top two finalists, Poppe and 19-year-old country crooner Caleb Lee Hutchinson, had been secretly dating since meeting early on in the competition was one of the biggest shocks an “Idol” finale had ever seen. But the fun pretty much ended there as the finale lacked serious pizazz and felt little like the whopper of a season ender viewers had been treated to in the past.

Where was the spectacle? Where were the superstar appearances? Where were the flashy medleys that brought back our favorite finalists? (C-)

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