'American Idol' launches Season 13

Posted: January 16, 2014

* AMERICAN IDOL. 8 tonight and tomorrow, Fox 29.

PASADENA, CALIF. - One fewer judge, way less drama.

Or so it seemed as the new three-judge panel for this season's "American Idol" met with reporters Monday at the Television Critics Association's winter meetings.

The same session a year ago turned out to be largely about parsing the relationship - or nonrelationship - between then-judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. This year, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and newbie judge Harry Connick Jr. got to talk about all kinds of things.

Even music.

Look for Connick, a former prodigy who believes deeply in music education, to be the tough vote this year, or at least in tonight's two-hour premiere.

(Also look for at least one Philly-area contestant to wow the judges.)

Before joining the show as a judge, "I was that guy who was the fan watching with his family, saying, 'Why won't they tell them that they can't sing?' " said Connick.

"It's OK to say that. . . . Here's the deal: You sign up to be judged by us, and we judge you. I don't care about how you look or what happened in your personal life - that's not why you're here right now. Ultimately it's interesting to know, but I'm responding to a performance. And I don't believe you have to couch your critique in some compliment. That's my style."

Connick has a music vocabulary that goes well beyond "pitchy," and he's not afraid to use it, with both the contestants and his fellow judges.

"I will tell every kid that comes in, whether they're educated or not, 'You need to work on your craft,' " Connick said. "It has nothing to do with passion. We've seen some kids, I mean, they don't know what a major scale is. I don't really care about that, but I would think, at the end of this process, hopefully, they would start figuring out, 'Let me learn as much as I can.' "

Lopez is back on the show after a year off during which she "wound up touring the world for the first time and, you know, producing [ABC Family's] 'The Fosters' and doing a bunch of other things that I'm glad I did take the time to do."

Urban, the only judge to return from last season - Randy Jackson has a newly developed mentoring role - remains a diplomat.

When I asked him afterward if he'd ever felt like Switzerland between Carey and Minaj, he said, "I felt like I was in a band. I've been in a lot of musical sort-of combinations, and me and Randy were in a band with two girl lead singers. . . . I know how to roll with different artistic people who live in this world uniquely."

Also joining the show behind the scenes is executive producer Per Blankens, whose work on the successful Swedish version of "Idol" got him an invitation to help tweak "American Idol XIII" after Season 12's ratings proved disappointing.

"I think we, all of us, needed to bring a new way to look at the show," Blankens said. "I brought some ideas, small details - for instance, that the judges need to hand out the golden tickets themselves."

He's also responsible for "The Chamber," a feature of the Swedish edition in which contestants spend a short time alone before facing the judges.

"The show is not about the judges, and America is one of the few markets where you have celebrities on the panel," he said. After the first show, "we want the kids to become the real stars and to have the judges take one step back."

A 'Justified' decision

Next season will be the last for FX's "Justified," but don't blame the network.

"It was really Graham [Yost, the show's creator] and [star] Tim Olyphant's decision," FX Networks chief John Landgraf said of the move to end the Elmore Leonard show after next season, its sixth. (Season 5 premiered Jan. 7.)

Landgraf said that he'd have been happier to have the show go on but that Yost and Olyphant believed that the show, about a deputy U.S. marshal with an itchy trigger finger, would be best served by limiting it to six seasons.

So don't shoot the messenger.

Phone: 215-854-5950

Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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