How the 'American Idol' premiere turned a funeral into a fresh start

For a first episode, the season premiere of "American Idol" sure had a lot to say about the end. Rarely was Wednesday’s show far from a reminder that, after 14 game-changing years, the series was beginning its farewell cycle.

We got a weepy introductory sequence with reenactments of earlier finales, including a bunch of firefighters cheering Ruben Studdard’s win way back in 2003. We got Ryan Seacrest telling us how “Idol” had improved show business -- had improved the world, in fact -- by offering “these brief glimpses into the lives of talented dreamers.” And we got countless archival clips of people whose stints on the judges’ panel now seem like ancient history.

Steven Tyler, everybody! I’d totally forgotten that he’d been on this thing.

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Yet, if Wednesday’s two-hour opener had all the makings of a funeral, it felt surprisingly full of life. Could the once-thrilling “American Idol,” which in recent years became a joyless grind, rediscover its mojo to finish on a high note?

Much of the energy came from the contestants, just as it did during “Idol’s” early days, before the parade of celebrity judges reset the show’s focus.

You could see the yearning in these kids’ eyes and hear their talent too: youngsters like Lee Jean, who brought real tenderness to an Ed Sheeran song, and Jeneve Rose Mitchell, a 15-year-old cowgirl whose cello playing was way funkier than you’d expect from someone claiming, as she did, to live “off the grid.”

There were oddballs, of course, including the honky-tonk singer who called himself Billy Bob and the mustachioed, vaguely creepy emo dude who killed all the cuteness in his song by Death Cab for Cutie.

But, hey, Mr. Mustache was pretty good! Following a few seasons in which “Idol” seemed to be steering its hopefuls into increasingly narrow lanes, it was a pleasure to see someone succeeding with his own strange style -- and to do so without serving as a clear object of the producers’ exploitation.

Not that everyone escaped humiliation. One memorable sequence had a married couple, both worship leaders, auditioning at the same time with their baby daughter in tow. He gets through to Hollywood, but she’s rejected, after which she tearfully blames him for distracting the judges with the baby during her song.

I’m sure they’ll all be fine.

As lively as the contestants were, the judges -- Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr., in case you’d forgotten -- were largely breathing fresh air as well. They seemed loose, spirited and happy to be there (even if that was only because they’ll soon be free).

Urban dispensed solid musical advice. Connick flirted with a police officer who handcuffed him. Lopez rapped along with Kanye West when he for some reason turned up to do a fake tryout with his song “Gold Digger.”

Near the end of the premiere, the three even broke into an apparently impromptu rendition of the “Laverne & Shirley” theme song -- then sang the tune all the way through, accompanying themselves by banging on a table for percussion.

Give ’em a chance to make “Idol” fun again, and it turns out they’ll take it. Straight ahead and on the track now ...

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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