How Harry Connick, Jr. Healed an Ailing 'American Idol'

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Most American Idol fans know that their favorite reality singing competition is limping along on its last legs. Though the ratings are still huge by network standards, they drop consistently year after year. The market is saturated with other iterations of youngsters chasing the same dream on different, yet similar programs and after 2013's judging debacle, it seemed there was no fixing the defunct panel. But then came Harry Connick, Jr. and thanks to his energy, it looks like all might be well on Idol once more.

Right now, we're stuck in the generally boring phase of Idol episodes that most often serves as a wasteland of cheesy back stories, judges infighting, and tone-deaf dreamers crushed by reality: the audition episodes. And for the first year in a long time, I opted out of most of the audition episodes, tuning in only to those that happened to be hanging out on the DVR when I needed something on in the background. Why waste my actual attention span on two-hour blocks consisting mainly of judges' sarcastic quips and the humiliation of troves of Idol hopefuls, complete with slapstick "bonk" and "boink" sounds?

But this year, auditions are different. Finally, Wednesday night during the Detroit episode, Idol arrested my full attention because for once, auditions weren't so awful. There were no humiliating montages of tone deaf auditioners with a shattering glass graphic slapped over their faces. There were no plinky songs played as a young kid who sounded more like William Hung than the next Phillip Phillips walked out of the room, hanging his head in crushing defeat. Ryan Seacrest's one-liners weren't going over sad contestants' heads as the condescending sound track told us he'd totally zinged that poor bastard. With the exception of a few people donning costumes in a clear effort to get in a silly segment during an auditions episode, Idol is actually being kind to its fans and auditioners.

Still, it wasn't just the sweetness of the new season — without any other elements, it would be hard to sustain "aw, how nice" for two entire hours of television. The judges, seemingly led by newbie Harry Connick the way Randy Jackson led the panel in the absence of Simon Cowell, genuinely care more about the process and the contestants before them than they do about coining catch-phrases or being noticed. Connick, who appeared on the last season of Idol as a guest mentor and took Jackson's confounding commentary to task, brings an air of legitimacy to the show that's been lacking for some time.

Of course, Jackson is a huge name in music and certainly knows a thing or two about what it takes to become a major artist, but when it came to the art of singing, he was about as sophisticated as a high school kid with a few years of show choir under his belt. Connick actually understands the complexities of what it takes to sing well — even pointing out the strange tongue technique of one young Detroit hopeful and explaining what exactly it was doing to the quality of her singing. "It's a quick fix," he added, before giving her his vote for Hollywood.

He's not harsh or mean in the way Cowell once was — or in the way that Jackson, at times, attempted to be. Connick is straight forward and honest, but when he's unimpressed or he thinks something is terrible, he either adds constructive criticism in a respectful tone or he remains silent. Sure, these aren't the primetime fireworks Cowell used to create, but the mean model is tired and frankly, quite sad. Connick is the poster boy for light, yet charming sarcasm backed by a huge knowledge base.

And while Connick is certainly not in charge of his panel mates Jennifer Lopez and Urban, he seems to be rubbing off on them. Urban's commentary has gotten more specific and his tolerance for mediocrity has waned. Lopez no longer calls everyone "baby" or gets hung up on how cute someone is: she's there to do a job, and that job is to find singers who are ready and willing to work towards the live competition. And considering that Idol has been running its marketing campaigns on its record of launching legitimate artists like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and most recently Phillip Phillips, it's important to establish that honest and expert approach early on in the auditions.

While last season's constant bickering matches between judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey were the stuff tabloid dreams are made of, the "magic" didn't last. Eventually, it came to hinder the competition and overshadow the talent, like winner and vocal powerhouse Candice Glover. While Connick (who consistently makes jokes about being a non-celebrity judge since his popularity is mainly confined to the jazz community) may not create a splashy ruckus behind the panel desk the way Minaj did last year or Paula Abdul did for most of her time on the show, he's keeping it interesting by making the competition about singing. Go figure.

His attitude bodes well for the remainder of the series, when hopefully, the contestants themselves will actually be the most commanding presence on the screen while Connick, Urban, and Lopez provide the pitch perfect sideshow.

Image: Fox (2)