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As 'Idol' Surges, New Judges Tune Up Their Feedback

Steven Tyler,  Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson are hard at work on the new season of <em>American Idol</em>.
Frank Micelotta
Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson are hard at work on the new season of American Idol.

American Idol is holding on to its place at the top of the ratings, despite losing its biggest star, incisive judge Simon Cowell. But back in January, when the new season started, Idol's continued success wasn't a given.

This week we're getting to the big performance shows. Fans know this is where the rubber meets the road — for singers AND the judges. It's where beloved comic Ellen DeGeneres crashed and burned last year, uncomfortable as a critic and uneasy around fellow judges.

Producers responded this year with an aggressive reboot, deploying the glamor of Jennifer Lopez and the mojo of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler. Tyler in particular has become Idol's new goofy mascot. He lights up the screen with a much-needed shot of unpredictable fun, without any of the brittle dysfunction of former judge Paula Abdul.

He's full of crazy lines like, "You are in your mind good and out of your mind unreal!"

He even takes on veteran judge Randy Jackson. As they quibbled over one singer's version of Alicia Keys' "Falling," Tyler exclaimed, "If I agreed with you we'd both be wrong!" and Jackson had to laugh.

This season, it's obvious Idol's crop of singers is better. That makes an unexpected challenge for the new judges, who struggle for new ways to say "you done good." Even Tyler can sound a bit repetitive on that score, telling singer after singer that their performance was "beautiful." And Jennifer Lopez must really believe the best singing comes from deep inside, because she tells that to most every contestant, in one way or another.

But to be fair, sometimes Randy Jackson says the same things because the singers keep making the same mistakes. His pet peeve: contestants singing a song without bringing their own, original take to their performance. He scolded Jordan Dorsey for aping Usher. He dinged Tim Halperin for channeling Rob Thomas, and Julie Zorrilla got served for her thin copy of Idol winner Kelly Clarkson.

As Idol whittles down its 13 finalists to one winner, there's one wild card left: the voters. For years, critics have assumed the show's tween voters weed out women and people of color, leaving cute, unassuming white guys on top. But unassuming guys don't sell many albums, and the days of Idol winners scoring instant platinum records are long gone.

Last week's results were a troubling sign. Rod Stewart clone Paul McDonald and fuzzy-faced Casey Abrams beat out better male voices. It didn't hurt that they got a lot of compliments from the judges for their appeal to the ladies.

Still, with ratings close to last season and an exciting crop of new talent, it's official: American Idol has saved itself from the dustbin of TV history.

Now all the judges have to do is find a different way to say it.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.