‘American Idol’ relies on a new mix of judges for a sweeter — and more successful — show

Welcome back to “American Idol.” Don’t be scared — it’s a much happier place.

Missed last season? If so, you’re not alone. Ratings plummeted after producers added Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey to the panel of judges, assuming that viewers would flock to watch the feuding divas. They didn’t. “It was like hell, going to work every day in hell with Satan,” Carey would reflect in an interview.

Now the show looks to reinvent itself as Season 13 kicks off with a two-night premiere Wednesday and Thursday. And it’s fair to wonder whether anything can reverse the slide of what was once the country’s most popular show.

Fox hopes that a combination of new and old judges will help draw viewers. This season features a carefully engineered amalgam of what producers believe will be the perfect three-judge panel: Actress/singer Jennifer Lopez (returning for her third stint after a break); country star Keith Urban, who patiently endured last season’s Minaj-Carey war; and Harry Connick Jr., a favorite former “Idol” guest mentor who is a most-welcome new judge.

And while the show’s audience may be shrinking, there are still plenty of die-hard fans. About 150 in the Washington area were on hand Tuesday night in Alexandria for a special sneak preview of Wednesday’s season premiere. It might have been a small sample size, but the audience at the AMC Hoffman Center 22 movie theater seemed to love the new panel, and with good reason: Everything about the Lopez-Urban-Connick trio is delightful, and their regular laughing and joking with each other on camera even seems natural. They pay close attention to auditions, even by the most hopeless singers — no more nasty montages showing delusional wannabes being mocked by scoffing judges. If someone doesn’t have what it takes, they’re let down gently: “I just don’t think you’re a good enough singer,” Connick will say, sadly. Only once does he recommend pitch-correcting software.

Oh, right — the contestants. Sometimes pushed to the background in recent seasons, the spotlight is back on singing hopefuls instead of arguing judges. Even the auditioner who twerks while singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gets kind treatment. Highlights of Wednesday’s episode, which travels to Boston and Austin, included 17-year-old Sam Woolf, who has a tragic back story and a fabulous Ed Sheeran impression. Then there’s 15-year-old Kaitlyn Jackson, who sings a heartbreaking original song about when her grandfather had a heart attack. (He pulled through at the time but has since died.) “I guess God didn’t need another angel that day,” she sang as the judges sat stunned and viewers started sniffling.

“Idol” these days is a sweeter, kinder place — and about time. “Idol” has noticeably dipped in the ratings: Last season averaged 13.2 million viewers per episode, according to Horizon Media, compared with 17.2 million in 2012 and a high-water mark of 30.2 million in 2006. The decline has been particularly noticeable when compared with other major competition shows, such as NBC’s hit “The Voice,” where the judges actually like each other.

Even though “Idol” has been down a bumpy road (Paula Abdul’s antics, the Ellen DeGeneres debacle, the demotion of lone original judge Randy Jackson to “mentor” status this year), the show still holds broad appeal. Despite those old feuds between the judges, it remains a show the whole family can watch together. And sure enough, there were lots of young girls with their moms, groups of teenagers and some entire families. Why do they keep watching?

“Nothing else compares,” gushed Francis Rios, 25, of Washington, who doesn’t think the other singing shows measure up. She’s an “Idol” superfan who’s watched since the second season, goes to “Idol” tour concerts and genuinely misses Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul. But no matter who the judges are, she never gets tired of the dynamic.

Angela Landeen of Rockville brought her 10-year-old daughter, Beritt. Last season, “the constant bickering” between judges turned people off, Angela Landeen said. Still, it remains a show kids can watch — and then call Grandma the next day to discuss. Beritt enthusiastically agrees and shares high hopes for the 13th season: “I think it will really help that Jennifer Lopez is back.”

Attendees at the screening were happy to see J-Lo return. And Connick was a huge hit — particularly during a self-
deprecating stretch when hordes of auditioners claimed to be massive J-Lo or Urban fans — and had no clue who the new guy was.

“My mother loves you,” offered one 15-year-old contestant.

“Well that’s nice,” Connick deadpanned.

At the end of the screening, host Ryan Seacrest rounded up the judges for a simulcast Q&A session from Los Angeles, where the niceties continued. The judges described themselves using such phrases as “great chemistry,” “reasonable dialogue” and “more collaboration.” “The judges love each other, and it’s really fun,” Connick said.

Is it possible all the kindness will backfire and the show will become a snoozefest? Connick and Lopez promise there’s an incident later in the season where they “get into it” about sending home a particular singer. But as the first part of the premiere ends with Connick goofing off as he carries Urban in his arms like a giant baby, it looks as if this will be a warm and fuzzy “Idol” for a good long while.

American Idol

(two hours) continues its season premiere Thursday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter and pop culture blogger for the Style section. She joined the Post in May 2008, a week before she graduated from the University of Maryland, and worked on Lisa de Moraes' TV Column and blog.
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