Seeing singers like these grow into their power was always central to the “Idol” narrative. The same is true for some older contestants, like Marcio Donaldson, a tender soul singer who in early appearances seemed as if he might shatter, and Ada Vox, a drag queen with a gargantuan voice who auditioned in earlier seasons as Adam Sanders. (The celebration of Ms. Vox; Ms. Perry’s casual use of queer slang; and the showcasing of the same-sex marriage of Jurnee, one of the finalists, are far leaps for a show that always emphasized heteronormativity, and whose most famous gay contestants, Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert, didn’t come out until after their time on the show.)
In later seasons of “Idol,” and subsequently on “The Voice,” these contestant arcs were replaced by judge dramatics. “The Voice” especially showed that pop stars, if they took the judging chair, would not just be the arbiters of a competition but also stars of their own weekly sitcom.
The new “Idol” acknowledges this shift without crumbling under it. Ms. Perry is a talented physical comedian and a ham willing to wail over her purported contestant crushes, though as a judge, she’s especially tough on the young female performers. Mr. Bryan is especially tough on the English language; as a judge, he’s Randy Jackson reincarnate.
Mr. Richie is the shepherd of this uncertain flock. He is the most firm with criticism, and also the most generous with praise. In the early rounds especially, particularly when the auditioners were young black men, he slipped into a paternal role, offering firm encouragement and stories from the Commodores’ glory (and not-so-glory) days. When telling two young fathers that they’d made it through to the Top 24, he congratulated them for “standing up to your responsibilities.”
The show’s host is still Ryan Seacrest, slightly muted in the wake of sexual harassment allegations that resurfaced earlier this year, which he has denied. During some of the recent rounds, he sported glasses and a fine coat of stubble on his face, distancing tools (though both were gone for Sunday’s live show).
Now that the season is at its halfway point, the cracks in the show’s alleged star-making process are becoming clear. Thriving in a series of singing-competition performances is a stand-alone skill that has little to do with music-industry viability (See: most winners of “Idol” and every winner of “The Voice”). Take Michael J. Woodard, a guileless young singer bursting with energy and equally comfortable with show tunes and dramatic dance music. When Bobby Bones, the country radio D.J. and a guest mentor, tried to shove him into a genre box, he chose “alternative R&B,” which isn’t nearly the half of it.
And as the season progresses, even the most idiosyncratic singers get good at “Idol”-style performances. They mistake sobriety for maturity, and tend toward the mean, losing the quirks that made them stand out in the auditions.
This was particularly grueling during the duets round, a new innovation this season in which contestants perform with professional singers who could still benefit from the broad-scale exposure “Idol” offers — Colbie Caillat, Bishop Briggs, someone named Banners, and also Luis Fonsi, more famous than all of the others combined and quadrupled (in Spanish). For those sturdy in their identity, like the Southern rocker Cade Foehner, this was manageable, but others on less steady ground faded into anonymity.
That round spelled doom for some of the competition’s best pure singers, like Alyssa Raghu, whose initial audition with Ariana Grande and Nathan Sykes’s “Almost Is Never Enough” was disarmingly mature, and Shannon O’Hara, whose version of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” in the Hollywood Week solo rounds had glorious heft. (Somehow, the dynamic Thaddeus Johnson had already been eliminated by this point, following a sterling gospel version of Ms. Perry’s “Rise.”)
Perhaps those early exits merely prove the show’s lie — that talent is at its center, and there is an abundance of it this year. But again, it is talent suited to a television screen. In addition to the duets, the other significant change to the show from the original is how the herd is culled. In the past, finalists were generally sent packing one at a time in a slow drip that could be dull before it was thrilling. But “Idol” has thickened the middle and rushed the end. This week, in the first public vote of the season, the 14 finalists will be whittled to 10, and in just four weeks the new “Idol” winner will be crowned.
In the old system, a contestant like Gabby Barrett, a nuclear-warhead singer aimed directly at country radio, might have had the leg up. The shortened format might favor someone less expected — someone who isn’t inclined to use the show as a step toward a mainstream music career (though the winner gets a guaranteed contract with Hollywood Records, a pop-leaning label) but rather as a distraction on the way to a quieter kind of fame.