Fox has released four and half minutes of "American Idol" Season 13 footage to the public (along with a full 27 minutes to the press), and judging by the sneak peek, two things are definitely returning to the show in January: good times and guitars.
Season 12 was "Idol's" most troubled season yet. It made Season 9 look like an Emmy-sweeping smash success. Judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj clearly loathed each other, and their icky bickering turned the once-feelgood show into "The Real Housewives of Idol." Many of the forgettable contestants had the personality of one of Simon Cowell's old discarded black T-shirts. And in a desperate and transparent attempt to avoid crowning a sixth guitar-plucking male winner, the series' powers-that-be all but banned six-string-slingers from the top 20, thus alienating a core part of "Idol's" audience.
But that's all changed, apparently. The new judges, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick Jr., are already acting like total besties. The contestants are adorable, and sometimes adorkable. For the first time in "Idol" history, those contestants are being encouraged to bring their guitars into the audition room. And a couple of those contestants are even being encouraged to twerk. Good times.
After watching nearly a half-hour of footage of the auditions in Boston and Detroit, here are my four major impressions of the hopefully lucky 13th season of "American Idol":
1. Keith Urban + Harry Connick Jr. = Blake Shelton + Adam Levine
Viewers who've defected to "The Voice" over the past couple years know that the blossoming bromance between that panel's aw-shucks country dude and Maroon 5's snarky rocker is one of that singing show's main draws. Hopefully those viewers will tune in to "Idol" next year to witness similar chemistry between Keith and Harry. The two appear so smitten with each other, they seem to barely even notice that the gorgeously Glow-ing J.Lo is sitting between them.
A sample of the hilarious banter between "Urbnick," as they shall henceforth be known: At one point, Keith says to an auditioner, "People always forget the power of intimacy," to which Harry bats his lashes and flirtily replies, "I'd like to remind you of the power of intimacy, Keith." Lulz. Keith gamely plays along, seemingly delighted to finally get a chance to actually speak (he really couldn't squeeze a word in edgewise last season, sitting next to motormouth Nicki) and to have a buddy on the panel. Aw.
2. Harry gets all the best lines
There haven't been so many chuckle-worthy one-liners on "Idol" since Steven Tyler was still talking about ducks and matches. Many of the best quips are Harry's self-deprecatory remarks, since he's apparently well aware that he's not a total A-lister like Jennifer or Keith. When one contestant tells Harry how much he loves his music, Harry says, "You do know who I am? I'm Chris Isaak. You know…'Wicked Game'?" Another time, when Keith asks him what he did that day, Harry answers, "I went to the bar and got drunk, because nobody knew who I was!" If Harry can be this funny on the live shows, it won't be long before everyone will know who he is. He'll be the star judge on "Idol," plain and simple.
3. Jennifer is so not the star of the show anymore
Despite her $17 million salary, center seat, and all the out-of-control hype surrounding her return to "Idol" after a season-long hiatus, J.Lo is definitely playing the straight woman between cutups Keith and Harry. She cool while facing Harry's constant teasing (while occasionally blurting out lines like "you're sick people" when the boys get out of line), but she doesn't try to compete for attention or dominate the panel like she did before. She just sits there, does her job, and stays out of Keith and Harry's way. Who'd've imagined that J.Lo could be so mellow? Maybe she'll actually be tolerable next season.
4. Guitar heroes rule again
As I mentioned earlier, Season 12 was a bizarrely guitar-phobic season on "Idol." The producers' rock-resistant plan worked like a charm, and the guitar dudes' five-season winning streak was broken (R&B diva Candice Glover won, in case you already forgot). But Season 12 was also the lowest-rated season in "Idol" history. While there were obviously other reasons for this decline, the fact that "Idol's" fanbase didn't have a David Cook, a Phillip Phillips, or even a Crystal Bowersox to root for definitely played a major factor.
But Season 13 is a guitar-friendly zone. Practically everyone who enters the Boston and Detroit audition rooms, male and female, has a guitar in hand. There's a ruggedly beardy guy named John in a Kris Allen-regulation plaid workshirt, strumming his way through "To Make You Feel My Love." There's a cute 17-year-old troubadour named Sam doing Ed Sheeran's "Lego House." There's a quirky guitar girl named Mariel, whose look is described by J.Lo as "Rihanna meets Miley," crooning Adele's "One and Only"; a winsomely doe-eyed songstress named Kenzie who kills it on John Mayer's "I'm Gonna Find Another You"; and a couple other cool-chick types with utterly awesome names like Austin Wolf and Paris Primo. And…they're all pretty great.
And there's one other singer-songwriter type, a shaggy-haired teen named Ethan whom Keith dubs "the lost Osmond." ("Ronnie," adds Harry.) Ethan/Ronnie smiles and says, "This is what I was looking forward to: you guys laughing and having fun." I'm pretty sure Ethan speaks for all "American Idol" viewers with that remark. Let's hope the good times continue when Season 13 premieres on Jan. 15.