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Grading the first season of ABC's 'American Idol' reboot

Grading the first season of ABC's 'American Idol' reboot
"American Idol" finalists Caleb Lee Hutchinson and Maddie Poppe await the results from show host Ryan Seacrest on the season finale of ABC's rebooted version of the singing competition on May 21, 2018. (Eric McCandless / ABC)

When ABC revived "American Idol," just two years after the curtain fell on its 15-season run on Fox, many wondered whether the show would be able to capture its old magic.

The show was years removed from its heyday, when 30 million viewers tuned in weekly to root (and vote) for aspiring singers like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert and countless others, with its final seasons at Fox mostly remembered for the cadre of A-list judges, sagging ratings and inability to launch a viable star.

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ABC's revival of "Idol," which saw Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan fill the judges' panel and the return of longtime host Ryan Seacrest, wrapped its two-night season ender Monday with the crowning of Maddie Poppe, a 20-year-old folk-pop singer from Clarksville, Iowa.

The two-hour finale drew 8.7 million viewers (about 13.3 million tuned into its "farewell" bow on Fox), but the real test has only just begun for the hopefuls and the season's victor, who, as Perry advised, "need to make the most of this moment." With ABC already committed to a second season — Seacrest and the judges are all set to return — we thought it was worth grading the revived show.

Judges

On paper, Perry, Bryan and Richie couldn't appear more dissonant — respectively, a pop chameleon, a country superstar and a distinguished crooner with more accolades than mantel space. But it mostly worked. They ultimately had far more chemistry than a number of previous superstar panels, even if Perry's knack for slapstick distracted the process.

What made them most compelling was their commitment to offering constructive critiques that allowed contestants to tangibly improve over the course of the season. However, there were far too many times when the judges appeared overly cautious with feedback; that restraint needed to be tossed when the competition's strongest talents found themselves at the bottom of the heap. (B+)

Talent

This season's top 10 was the most diverse and dynamic crop of talent the show had seen in ages. There were powerhouse vocalists, performers who arrived to their first audition as fully realized artists just needing a shot (like eventual winner Poppe), singers who matured over the competition and talent that literally felt plucked from radio. Early on audience favorites Michael J. Woodard, Cade Foehner and Gabby Barrett emerged as front-runners, and although none of them took the crown, they are at the top of finalists who, along with Poppe, legitimately have the best shot at making a lasting impression in the industry. (A)

Live shows

"Idol" live shows are without equal when it comes to singing competitions. Built around themes that can be imaginative (Grammy hits, arena anthems) or quite standard (Motown, country night), the live shows are where contestants truly get to show their range. This season unfolded on a far more truncated schedule with just five weeks of live shows, about half of previous seasons. It left little room for the performances to really get interesting.

Because of the move to the Disney-owned ABC, there was finally a night of Disney tunes (mentored by the formidable Idina Menzel), and that turned out to be the season's highlight. There was a night dedicated to Prince, but it was a double theme of the finalist's birth year, and someone should have had the sense to reconsider mining the late icon's canon alongside tunes from Jewel, Britney Spears and Brian McKnight; a Mother's Day theme felt overly schlocky, which is saying a lot for this show. (D)

Viewer engagement

Each week, Seacrest boasted about how many votes had poured in. But it made us wonder who exactly was voting. This year's top 10 was an extremely impressive group rich in diversity — both in terms of ethnicity and talent. There was a Latina drag queen with a bone-chilling vocal prowess that recalled Jennifer Hudson, a black lesbian whose wife was able to support her during the competition before being deployed, a bilingual performer and singers of different shades who genre-hopped with ease. Yet there seemed to be a massive disconnect, considering how the people of color were the first to go. Sure, it's up to the viewing audience, but it was startling enough to cause a judges' intervention, an online backlash and be the subject of interviews for contestants. (D+)

Finale

Let's start with the good. That Disney-esque fairy tale reveal that the top two finalists, Poppe and 19-year-old country crooner Caleb Lee Hutchinson, had been secretly dating since meeting early on in the competition was one of the biggest shocks an "Idol" finale had ever seen. But the fun pretty much ended there as the finale lacked serious pizazz and felt little like the whopper of a season ender viewers had been treated to in the past.

Where was the spectacle? Where were all the superstar appearances? Where were the flashy medleys that brought back our favorite finalists? Instead of a big venue like the Microsoft Theater or the Dolby, the action played out on the "Idol" set, which made for a disappointingly bare-bones display. There was awful cross-promotion like meeting the next "Bachelorette" and silly antics such as awarding a popular finalist the alpaca he always dreamed of (a very unenthused alpaca appeared backstage) and Jimmy Kimmel showing up to poke fun at the show's history.

There were flashes of magic, though. Gary Clark Jr. was on hand for a fiery number with this season's soulful rock-influenced strummers Dennis Lorenzo and Cade Foehner; eventual winner Poppe dusted off her sweet and stirring take of "Rainbow Connection" — her audition number — alongside Kermit the Frog; and Ada Vox powered through "Lady Marmalade" alongside Patti LaBelle. (C-)

Areas for improvement

Producers made a number of changes behind the scenes ahead of the show's return in a bid to better prepare contestants for the rigors of the music industry, including bringing on more in-house mentors.

Although viewers saw a little of the interaction with mentors, it would have been beneficial to see more of the process. Producers should consider offering viewers an even deeper glimpse behind the scenes when the series returns next season. Let's see the finalists work through the creative side of performances, like choreography and staging. Show them mulling over song selections, workshopping the song's arrangement and recording it.

Because viewers are voting on "the total package," it might make some sense to reveal the contestants a bit more when they are off the stage (and not courtesy of those cheesy Ford tie-ins, which saw contestants lip syncing while plugging whatever vehicle the sponsor decided to peddle).

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And speaking of votes, it just might help to tweak the game play a bit next season. Maybe starting with giving each judge a wild card save for the live shows.

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Overall, "Idol" captured enough of its past triumphs to keep millions watching each week. ABC is certainly committed to its reboot, and producers are most likely figuring out some tweaks for the show moving forward. If they need help, we are available for more solicited advice during office hours.

For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy

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