'American Idol From Home' brings 'a little happiness' when we need it most

“Thank you for making American Idol your choice of entertainment tonight. The world is changing all around us, and we hope that this show is bringing a little happiness this way on your Sunday evening.”

Thus proclaimed Ryan Seacrest — the one American Idol constant since the series premiered in 2002 — from his locked-down Los Angeles living room Sunday night, when Idol made history as the first major TV talent show to proceed during the coronavirus era.

And there was indeed something immensely comforting and heartening about seeing Ryan at the old Season 1 desk where Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson once sat, the show’s familiar neon-blue oval logo glowing behind him, as he assured the nation: “They say the show must go on — and tonight, ours does just that. Even though the lights in our Hollywood studio may have dimmed, our top 20 came to Hollywood and entrusted us with their dreams. And we cannot let them down.”

Ryan Seacrest at his home during 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Ryan Seacrest at his home during 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)

And show the show didn’t let longtime viewers like myself down, either. When Ryan intoned, “This… is American Idol” — well, I believed him. Because that’s what it felt like, even with the top 20 contestants, performing for viewers’ votes for the first time this season, spread out across North America, and the three judges delivering their remote critiques from isolation. Sunday’s two-hour broadcast maintained the hopeful spirit of the show, plus it boasted impressively high production standards that made previous at-home musical TV broadcasts like the iHeartRadio Living Room Concert for America and One World: Together at Home looking like some wannabe influencer’s iPhone 3 Meerkat video from 2016. (Click here for fascinating details on how exactly Idol’s executive producers and their massive team pulled this off.)

The high-quality audio, the crisp and creative editing (gotta love those Brady Bunch squares showing shots of the live band accompaniment), the contestants’ makeup-tutorial-level primping and set-design-on-a-dime skills… let’s just say Idol really upped the stakes for how rival show The Voice will handle its live episodes in a couple weeks’ time, and for variety/musical television in general.

And who couldn’t crack a smile when fashionista judge Katy Perry showed up dressed up like a bottle of Idol-branded hand sanitizer… and wore that kooky get-up for the entire episode? (That’s this year’s Halloween costume sorted, then.) “I started tearing up — how ridiculous do I feel as a hand sanitizer, crying?” Katy wondered aloud at one point, while trying to deliver a serious critique with a plastic pump on her head. (If Purell wasn’t already a show sponsor, it totally should be now. Get on that, ABC advertising execs!)

Katy Perry is dressed to impress on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Katy Perry is dressed to impress on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)

Everyone on the show was pumped, so to speak. “This is the most excited I have been in a long time, because I can actually say I have never done this before in my entire career,” proclaimed showbiz veteran Lionel Richie from his home. And even the top 20 contestants seemed eager to adapt to the crazy circumstances.

Of course, some of them adapted more easily than others. Let’s review their performances below. This… is American Idol From Home.

Kimmy Gabriela (from Lakeland, Fla.), “Leave Me Lonely”

Kimmy, though a technically spectacular singer, has struggled to stand out and establish her identity in a season of strong personalities. But she excelled in this environment. Performing in her flower-festooned backyard garden, she smizingly worked the camera like an America’s Next Top Model contestant and finally made a lasting impression. “When you showed up on the screen, I didn’t even really recognize you,” said Katy. “I feel like you’ve done a little character evolution since we’ve been apart. … You are starting to know who you are.”

Jovin Webb (Baton Rouge, La.), “With a Little Help From My Friends”

I had worried that pro showman Jovin would suffer from having no live audience energy to feed off of, because he had been so in the zone during his live Hawaii showcase. But rocking out in his hippie man cave, he behaved like a massive crowd was in front of him anyway. The man is simply born to perform. “You have that sound that’s only yours… and you are delivering it with absolute feeling,” said Lionel. “You gave me what I wanted. A little barbecue sauce was needed.”

Franklin Boone (Durham, N.C.), “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

The supposed Alejandro Aranda of Season 18, Franklin has been one of my favorites so far. And I love me some Tears for Fears, so kudos to Franklin for the song choice. However, his fussy arrangement simply didn’t work; sometimes it even felt like he was behind the beat. Lionel praised Franklin’s “attitude” and originality, and judge Luke Bryan said Franklin gave him “chillbumps,” but unfortunately, I am afraid that this living room performance won’t be enough to get Franklin to the top 10 next week.

Olivia Ximines (Riverside, Calif.), “Bad Guy”

Olivia’s precocious kiddie-pageantry has bugged me all season, but there was something about her singing in what appeared to be an apartment — without a lot of room for her usual cheer-squad dancing — that made her a better performer. She was so much more mature, not at all cutesy; ironically, being in a small space made Olivia seem ready for the big leagues. “I got to hear the quality of your voice even more, and how much it’s grown,” marveled Katy. “You have everything to be a superstar,” said Lionel.

Louis Knight (Narberth, Pa.), “If the World Was Ending”

The blue walls, the red keyboard — there were some good primary-color optics going on here. (And props to Louis for actually making his bed, unlike Charlie Puth on the One World live-stream.) The introspective vibe clearly works for Louis (he was a mess in Hawaii), so with this sweet performance, he reminded everyone why Luke once predicted he could be the biggest star to ever come from this show. “Great song choice for you,” said Luke. “It really gave us a clear glimpse of who you can be as an artist. … an artistically, beautifully done performance.”

Makayla Phillips (Temecula, Calif.), “Greedy”

Makayla didn’t let a little thing like a nationwide lockdown stop her from acting like her living room was the soundstage at CBS Studios. Rocking out in her pretty-in-pink, totally ’80s foyer (seriously, it looked like a set from Less Than Zero, or least from a Silk Stalkings cable movie), she belted this Ariana Grande song with all the unbridled confidence of a little girl in front of a mirror singing into a hairbrush. (And, speaking of hairbrushes, Makayla’s hair-and-makeup was on point. She looked like a superstar.) “I’m telling you now, that was as professional as it’s ever going to be. … I loved every moment of that performance,” raved Lionel, even if he and the other judges didn’t love the song choice.

Aliana Jester (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.), “Run to You”

Aliana did a commendable job of converting her garage into a red velvet lounge, but her performance was flat, stiff, and awkward compared to some of the others. (Where was her emotional support dog, Nova? She needed some support.) I still don’t get the Whitney comparisons, which presumably inspired this song choice; those shrill notes were in no way Houston-esque. But Katy loved the passion and dynamics here, and Luke predicted that “many people are going to pull for” Aliana, so we shall see.

Faith Becnel (New Orleans), “River”

This was my favorite Faith performance yet, or really the only Faith performance I’ve enjoyed all season. Also performing in a converted garage — the perfect backdrop for this gritty Bishop Briggs hit — it turned out that this usually shticky wedding singer totally tones down the cheese where there’s no audience around. This was laser-focused and interesting. “Little Miss Personality just showed us that she can hit some big-time notes,” raved Luke, adding that with was his favorite version of the oft-covered “River” yet.

Nick Merico (Woodland Hills, Calif.), “Hey There Delilah”

Something about this felt dated. Was it the sappy song choice? The MTV Unplugged draperies and Pottery Barn fixtures tacked to Nick’s beige apartment walls? The whole performance was just beige. His voice was nice, but I think on a night packed with performances that were flashier vocally and/or visually, Nick will get lost in the voting shuffle. Luke thought Nick should have dug in more, but Katy observed, “I got to actually hear the subtleties of your voice and how beautiful it was.” We’ll soon see what America thought.

Lauren Spencer-Smith (Vancouver, Canada), “Mamma Knows Best”

Well, Lauren definitely wins for having the prettiest performance space. It actually looked like a 3D postcard, and even Katy and Lionel remarked that it seemed like the ideal idyllic quarantine environment. It remains to be seen if that beautiful landscape will be an advantage, or if viewers will be turned off by someone who seems to be luxuriating in pandemic privilege. Either way, Lauren sounded as awesome as that scenery looked. She was chewing that scenery with this monster vocal! “It’s incredible,” said Katy. “You’re growing during a quarantine. You’ve somehow figured out how to continue to grow as a star.”

Cyniah Elise (Jonesboro, Ga.), “Warrior”

This was a gorgeous vocal, but Cyniah did not exude much star quality. Even though she went viral with a home video before she was ever on Idol, ironically, she seems to be one of the contestants who would have benefited from a live audience and a traditional Idol production with all the bells and whistles. Luke and Katy warned Cyniah that she needs to work more on the camera connection next week.. but she will probably be going home next week.

Francisco Martin (Daly City, Calif.), “Teenage Dream”

Nerves have gotten the better of Francisco many times, so of course he thrived in this mellower situation — even though he was admittedly terrified to perform Katy’s song, virtually in front of her. Thankfully, Katy appreciated this “dice roll” and for the most part said Francisco did her song “real justice.” Luke laughed, “I was like, ‘Please don’t let this kid cover a Katy song and mess it up’ — and you didn’t!” Said Lionel, “You took the chance of your life, and you made it your song.”

Sophia James (Long Beach, Calif.), “Burning”

The artist formerly known as Sophia Wackerman was serving Sara Bareilles realness as she joyously swayed behind her keyboard to this Maggie Rogers song. Katy and Luke criticized her lack of eye contact, oddly; I actually felt a real connection here. But Lionel felt it too, saying, “When you look into the camera, you can melt hearts right away.”

DeWayne Crocker Jr. (Castle Rock, Colo.), “I Feel Good”

It was Christmas with the Crockers, as the former BET’s Sunday Best contestant performed in front of his Christmas tree with several of this reveling relatives present. (Sadly, his sassy great-grandma was social-distancing and not there.) I loved the intention, but this James Brown cover wasn’t all that celebratory; the arrangement sucked all of the oomph out of it. The judges were impressed by DeWayne’s runs at the end, but Luke thought DeWayne’s vocal was “a little too slick,” and Katy agreed: “It needed to be a little bit dirtier for me,” she said. I don’t know how good DeWayne will be feeling after this week’s vote.

Dillon James (Bakersfield, Calif.), “Let It Be Me”

This performance almost looked like a Wrangler jeans commercial running on ’90s CMT, as Dillon the “spiritual cowboy” strummed a Ray LaMontagne ballad in front of a rustic cabin in his Canadian tuxedo. It wasn’t the standout vocal of the night, but it was a well-executed performance and very on-brand. Dillon is a “package artist,” as they say in the biz. Said Lionel: “Your look, your sound, your attitude, your presentation — you look like a world-class artist.”

Arthur Gunn (Wichita, Kan.), “Lovin’ Machine”

Arthur is one of the most unique contestants of this season, or any season, and doing a ragtime classic by ’40s bluesman Wynonie Harris was certainly a daring move. I hope America gets it and the risk pays off. I do wish Arthur had been playing his signature guitar — he seemed a bit clumsy and hesitant, hunched over his too-low microphone stand. But there was so much joy and energy and pizzazz and razzmatazz in this performance, and his voice was so “undeniable,” as Luke put it, that I didn’t really mind. Seriously, if this guy gets booted off Idol, Postmodern Jukebox needs to call him, pronto. “You were definitely giving us such a vibe,” said Katy, while Luke called Arthur a “potential ginormous star.”

Julia Gargano (Staten Island, N.Y.), “Human”

Julia’s obvious direct competition is Sofia, and I predict if the vote gets split and only one of those women makes it to the top 10, it will be Juliana. There was 100 perfect connection here, 100 percent honesty, 100 percent authenticity. Luke called her a “superstar.” Katy told her, “You check all the boxes.” And Lionel said, “We have a lot singers in the world, but very few stylists. Stylists make careers. That was an amazing performance — in your style.”

Grace Leer (San Ramon, Calif.), “Cry”

Grace will likely make the top 10 no matter what, because she is the only female country artist of the season (and really the only straight-up country singer, of either gender). But there was nothing less than fantastic about her vocal. However, her performance was a bit stiff, lacking the natural sass and ease of her star-making “Natural Woman” number in Hawaii; I so wish she’d had the chance to work a stage bigger than her backyard. But that being said, she did more than enough this week — and the judges loved her. “You were giving us those big, amazing notes that you spoil us with,” said Luke.

Just Sam (Los Angeles), “I Believe”

When regular Idol production was suspended this season due to coronavirus concerns, the contestants were sent back home to isolate with their families. But for reasons unexplained, Just Sam stayed in Hollywood, rather than go back to her native Harlem. (She lives there with her grandmother; perhaps she thought it was too much of a risk to return.) I felt bad for Sam that she didn’t have anyone there to root for her — unlike other contestants, whose relatives were standing just out of camera frame with glitter-glued cardboard signs. But I was certainly rooting for Just Sam as she tearfully, triumphantly belted Season 3 winner Fantasia’s coronation song in a finale-worthy red gown. It sort of felt like Idol history repeating itself, and I am sure old-school Idol viewers loved it. “This is what this show is about: giving someone a chance, and seeing how much that chance can change them,” said Luke. “If there’s ever been an inspirational figure in this whole group, you’ve been that person,” said Lionel.

Jonny West (Studio City, Calif.), “What a Wonderful World”

Jonny picked this sentimental song a long time ago, but in the middle of a pandemic, it took on new meaning and sent a light-at-tunnel’s-end message of hope. Even Ryan had to note that it was “the perfect message to end the night on.” Jonny’s performance was more stripped and lo-fi than many others Sunday, but he didn’t need any Christmas lights or a Canadian lakefront. This was so elegant and tasteful. “I heard 10 different deviations of a music career. … I heard Randy Newman in there, I heard movie soundtracks, I heard so many things,” said Luke. “We’re not worthy,” exclaimed Katy, as she attempted to bow down in her unbending cardboard costume.

But who is worthy of making the top 10? Sadly, since some of Season 18’s competitive episodes were axed while producers were trying to figure out how to proceed, half of these contestants will be eliminated next Sunday in one fell, brutal swoop. My picks, based on their Sunday performances as well as their overall body of work this season, are Jovin, Franklin, Makayla, Francisco, Dillon, Arthur, Juliana, Grace, Just Sam, and Jonny. But I’ll hate to say goodbye to any of these talented kids so soon.

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