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‘American Idol,’ at 13, Is Trying to Stay Relevant

posted Feb 6, 2014, 9:43 AM by Unknown user   [ updated Feb 6, 2014, 11:18 AM ]

Singing Contest, Talent shows

Audiences, like French presidents, can’t always be trusted.

“American Idol” is learning the lesson that Valérie Trierweiler, the recently discarded first consort of France, was dealt when President François Hollande turned out to have a younger mistress.

“American Idol” still has good bones. Particularly with this season’s cosmetic tweaks, this Fox show looks rosily well preserved and perhaps even better than last year and the one before. But it still can’t really compete with the other, younger singing competition.

“The Voice,” the hit NBC show that begins a sixth season in February, is a knockoff with some moves that lured away many “Idol” fans.

It could be chemistry, but usually it’s just math. Seniority isn’t much of a turn-on when something new comes along. The heart wants what the heart doesn’t already have.

“American Idol” now holds itself up as a national treasure in need of respect and customer loyalty, like the Smithsonian or PBS. The first episode opened with what looked like a political campaign ad. Young would-be contestants held up signs about their “dream” in a morning-in-America montage: farmers in cornfields, welders, fishermen. The show calls itself “iconic” and takes its mandate so seriously that some promos include a clip of the usually laid-back judge Harry Connick Jr. scolding a purposefully bad contestant who, as he puts it, “disrespected the process.”

There is something almost valiant about “American Idol” and its bid to stay relevant, or at least boost its ratings in its 13th season. The cast has changed again. Ryan Seacrest is still the host, but none of the original three judges are still there, and the current ones — Mr. Connick; Keith Urban, a judge last season; and Jennifer Lopez, a judge in two previous seasons — are appealing celebrities and genuine pop music stars. They banter gently with one another but are kind to contestants.

Yet even with more likable stars, “American Idol” is feeling its age. Beginning in 2002, “Idol” captured the national imagination as a saucy upstart, a cheerfully vulgar show that allowed nobodies to seek instant stardom — at the small cost of ridicule from Simon Cowell, one of the original judges and a creator of the series. For years, freakishly bad performances were part of the package. At its peak, “American Idol” was the nation’s most watched series; the Season 4 finale drew a record 38 million viewers. This season, the Jan. 15 premiere attracted 15.2 million viewers, down 16 percent from 17.9 million last winter, and the ratings have been slipping downward since then.

The tryouts this year are more streamlined. Some auditions are edited into medleys of three, a few contestants’ back stories (heartwarming) are woven right into their audition. Bad performances are cut mercifully short, losers and weirdos are spared humiliation. There are new features, including a metal isolation booth in which candidates wait, on camera, for the green light to flash.

But even with all the renovations, “Idol” tryouts seem antiquated next to the 3-D auditions on “The Voice,” where judges have their chairs turned backward, so they hear the voice before they see the physique. The judges then compete among themselves to see who will slam the buzzer first on a good prospect, and then they compete again by wooing a winning performer to their teams.

That conceit, which adds a bit of comeuppance to celebrity, may suit today’s more populist mood. Compared with that show’s dizzying pinball antics, “Idol” auditions seem like a game of mah-jongg.

And “Idol” isn’t hiding its gray hairs. It’s hard not to look your age when so many contenders say that they’ve been watching the show since they were babies. One of them, Tristen Langley, 15, is the son of a finalist from Season 1, Nikki McKibbin. (She came with him to his audition, and, pageant mom style, mouthed the words as he sang.)

The judges this season play into the generation gap. Mr. Connick, 46, winced gamely when a young singer said Ms. Lopez was her idol, then assured him that he, too, was a star.

“My mother loves you,” is how she put it.

Mr. Connick seems to enjoy the codger role, expressing shock at a teenager who has a treble clef tattoo. (Adam Levine, one of the judges on “The Voice,” has arms so ink mottled, he looks as if he is wearing an Oriental rug.) When it was time to vote, Mr. Connick playfully said to the boy, “I’m going to say no to the tattoo, but yes to you.”

Mr. Connick at least tries to enliven the show, making fun of himself and teasing his co-stars, but it’s a tough haul. Mr. Urban is handsome and good humored but not particularly charismatic. Ms. Lopez looks radiant, but she has surprisingly little pizazz; she presides regally over the auditions but is otherwise as sweet and insipid as a Disney princess.

“American Idol” isn’t what it used to be, of course. That kind of success can’t last forever. It is still a well-made show with a large, mixed-age audience. It may not be the most exciting competition on the air, but to its credit it is not trying to squeeze into tighter jeans and imitate younger, newer shows. Like many a woman of a certain age, “Idol” is trying to find a more dignified posture now that the bloom of youth has faded.

A version of this review appears in print on January 30, 2014, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Idol,’ at 13, Is Trying to Stay Relevant. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe