American Idol has spent the last few years making headlines for its rotating cavalcade of judges, and today is no exception: Harry Connick Jr. and returnee Jennifer Lopez have been officially announced as Keith Urban’s co-panelists on the 13th season of the show. Connick was one of the show’s standout mentors of the past few seasons, and Lopez was — hmm, amiable? Fine? Un-hated? — during her two-season stint as an Idol barrister. Is this changeup what the show needs?
I’ve argued this in seasons’ past, but American Idol has never been about the judges’ table. You can claim that Simon Cowell was the heart of the show for the first nine seasons, but the fact is, Cowell helped make the show great not because he was mean or funny or even critical, but because he made the show’s vocalists competitive. That’s what any great reality show is about: a thriving and brutal sense of competition. That’s why Big Brother’s 15th season is more interesting than American Idol’s 12th: Those houseguests are scheming for their lives every single week, working hard, and recalibrating their survival instincts every episode.
On Idol, we just waited impatiently as inferior vocalists died off and Candice Glover, Kree Harrison, Angie Miller, and Amber Holcomb already acted like the Top 4 from the very start. The reason season 8 was such a success (That’s the Adam Lambert/Kris Allen year) is because we had a varied, extremely talented pool of contestants, and all of them employed killer gameplay tactics. Allison Iraheta didn’t just sing “Cry Baby.” She threw down with “Cry Baby.” Adam Lambert trilled “Ring of Fire” with wild nuttiness, Kris Allen defied expectations with a Kanye West cover, and even Danny Gokey put on his most earnest and melancholy face for each of his maudlin performances. These were people who felt obligated — in a life-or-death competitive way — to be original. And I can’t bring up Danny Gokey’s name without conceding that having a villain is the best possible way to keep a reality show competitive.
Do I think Harry Connick Jr. will do a good job? Yes, based on the criteria I just described. He was straightforward as a commentator and always knew which vocalists deserved abject praise. His make-or-break critiques should inspire competitiveness, and that’s more than I can say for the sweetly tepid Jennifer Lopez or the blandly encouraging Keith Urban. Sorry, but Nicki Minaj ruled last season. I already miss her. She told Lazaro Arbos, Burnell Taylor, and Devin Velez to GET OFF THE STAGE. And they deserved it! And we deserved that honesty.
Here’s hoping Connick’s unflinching appraisals translate to a heated, Divas Live ’98-style vocal throwdown.