By Kevin C. Johnson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)
“American Idol” has gotten its groove back and not a moment too soon, with NBC’s “The Voice” attracting attention and the U.S. version of the British phenomenon “The X Factor” coming to Fox in the fall.
We almost counted out “American Idol” last year after an especially wobbly season that included “Pants on the Ground”; forgettable finalists Aaron Kelly, Tim Urban and Katie Stevens; and the crowning of Lee DeWyze, the lowest-selling “Idol” in the show’s history.
The show’s focus had also veered away from the contestants to the judges. Newcomer Ellen DeGeneres was a bad fit, knuckling under the pressure of the live shows. The departure of lead judge Simon Cowell at the end of Season 9 was a game changer, and bland judge Kara DioGuardi was unceremoniously dumped.
Now nearing the end of its 10th season, the Fox staple has managed to do what seemed impossible. It’s not only made us watch again, it’s made us care, even without Cowell in the mix.
Appealing teens Scotty McCreery, 17, and Lauren Alaina, 16, head into this week’s finale after the elimination of Haley Reinhart. The unexpected battle of country wannabes could be the sweetest _ and youngest _ showdown ever.
This season also had surprises at the judges table.
Rather than replace Cowell, DeGeneres and DioGuardi with another comedian or songwriter, “Idol” pulled out the big guns by bringing on superstars Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.
It was easy to be suspicious of those choices, especially after Lopez’s new album and Tyler’s new book were heavily promoted on the show.
But Lopez stepped into Paula Abdul’s role (minus the loopiness) and became the show’s sympathetic mother. She wasn’t above shedding tears, which helped overhaul her own cold diva image. Tyler’s criticisms have been too quick and friendly, but he brings a much-appreciated crazy vibe to the table.
Another big plus this season: The contestants came off as real contenders _ and no one was a sure bet.
Just ask Pia Toscano.
With her powerful voice and TV-friendly looks, Toscano was a front-runner but was eliminated in early April. Rocker James Durbin, who looked like the likely winner once Toscano was out of the way, was shown the door this month in one of the show’s most emotional eliminations.
But “Idol” producers would be silly to ignore the impact of “The Voice” and the buzz around “The X Factor.”
“The Voice,” with big-name judges Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, is a late-season breakout hit for NBC, drawing strong ratings and critical and viewer praise. The show has already been renewed for the fall.
Fall will also bring the long-awaited debut of Cowell’s “The X Factor,” which reunites him with Abdul. Other judges are British pop star Cheryl Cole and music executive L.A. Reid.
With all this new competition, it would seem time for “American Idol” to get back to its A-game.
Fortunately, it’s already there.