"American Idol" kicked off its 13th season Wednesday (January 15) with a fresh panel of judges, an emphasis on talent and a noted lack of drama.
In "Idol" land, this is good news, especially coming off of last season's disastrous experiment that saw Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj clawing at each other's necks, leaving viewers as the victims. The venerable franchise wound up shedding 4 million viewers from the season prior, falling to an average of 13.2 million viewers from 17.2 the year prior, and those who hung on are still suffering from symptoms of PTSD.
Wednesday aimed to curb that. Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. got along famously, shifting the focus from behind the judge's table to the singers in front of it. And producers kept the talent flowing, focusing on true singers rather than gag contestants and not bogging anyone down with weepy sob stories.
Connick is the show's new element, and he brings a calming presence to the panel. He's picked up Randy Jackson's annoying habit of making every interaction about him — no one can mention J. Lo without Connick mentioning they're not talking about him — but he has a focus on technicality that has already raised the bar for talent. He smacked Lopez and Urban down for being easily impressed by vocal runs, and threw out several "no" votes to contestants who would have easily skated through in earlier years. And at one point he schooled his panel members when he brought up pentatonic scales, which needed to be explained to J. Lo (and, if we're being honest, us too). Connick also has a knack for self-deprecation, introducing himself at one point as singer Chris Isaak.
Wednesday's episode focused on the show's Boston and Austin auditions, but "Idol" tipped its hat when it opened the show with 17-year-old Marialle Sellars, who auditioned in Detroit. She sang Bruno Mars' "Grenade" and blew the judges away, especially Connick, who told her, "you are going to be a nightmare for the other competitors in this competition." He then made her look into the camera and introduce herself as the next "American Idol," so you can count on seeing more of Sellars in the weeks to come.
In all, 46 singers from Boston and Austin made it through to Hollywood, and many of them went by on screen in a blur. Standouts included Shanon Wilson, a 24-year-old football player from Houston whose flawless version of Luke James' "I Want You" earned him a golden ticket to Hollywood before the judges even had a chance to vote; Malcolm Allen, a 21-year-old deli grocer who sang Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" with the aid of his air guitar; Munfarid Zaidi, a 19-year-old who is a huge Harry Connick Jr. fan who sang Adele's "Crazy for You" so well that Connick picked him up and held him like a baby; Madelyn Patterson, a 22-year-old hairdresser from who sang an impeccable rendition of Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain"; and Kaitlyn Jackson, a 15-year-old who sang an original song about her grandfather that blew the judges away.
"American Idol's" two-night premiere continues Thursday (January 16) with more Austin auditions as well as footage from the show's San Francisco audition round.