Following months of gossip and speculation that literally began before the most recent season of "American Idol" was even over, The Hollywood Reporter, E! Online, and Us Weekly are reporting that the Season 13 "Idol" judging panel has at long last been finalized, mere days before auditions are set to start taping. According to the magazines' sources, returning judge Jennifer Lopez and two-time "Idol" mentor Harry Connick Jr. will be joining another, previously confirmed returning judge, last season's Keith Urban. (Fox declined to comment at this time.)
Ironically, this was the dream team of ex-"Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe, before he was fired from the show; earlier this month, Nigel actually told "Access Hollywood" that if he'd had his way in Season 12, he would have picked J.Lo, Harry, and Keith for the panel. It's unclear, however, if Nigel would have approved of J.Lo's reported increased salary. According to The Daily Mail, Jennifer's getting a raise from her Season 11 salary of $15 million to $17.5 million, just half a mill under what fellow diva Mariah Carey pocketed last season. Apparently her love does cost a thing.
Rumors that Jennifer might return to "Idol" actually started circulating in the middle of Season 12, when Mariah was still on the show...implying that J.Lo was indeed missed, and "Idol's" powers-that-be at least partially blamed this year's ratings decline on Jennifer's absence. So now her triumphant return will be heralded as a Second Coming by some "Idol" fans, or at least by "Idol" publicists. The idea, presumably, is that J.Lo will provide a bit of nostalgia, a welcome reminder of "Idol's" glory days.
But seriously now, was Jennifer Lopez really that popular on "Idol"? Did viewers really miss her so much? Is she really the woman that can get this show back on track? And is she really worth $17.5 million? I have my doubts.
It's true that Jennifer was the star judge during a run that yielded two very successful winners, Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips. But she wasn't an original "Idol" judge, and she was only on the show for two seasons. And she hasn't even been gone all that long. Plus, her musical expertise was, let's face it, always questionable. She didn't know who Ryan Adams is; she didn't recognize Jimi Hendrix and Dave Matthews songs; she didn't (unlike Mariah) have much to offer in the form of actual singing expertise; and she was (unlike last season's Nicki Minaj) a big softy who thought every single contestant was simply "goosies"-inducing.
Sigh. Considering that J.Lo and Keith Urban are both veteran judges, this hardly seems like the drastic show makeover that "Idol" fans were promised after longtime producers Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe were replaced by "Swedish Idol's" supposedly edgier Per Blankens and MTV's Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prage. The show had a real chance to retool its entire format, but disappointingly, the producers played it safe yet again. THR, Deadline, and Us even report that former judge Randy Jackson, who left "Idol" this past May after a dozen seasons, will be back on the show after all, taking over Jimmy Iovine's in-house mentor role. They can't even get rid of Randy! So it'll just be the same old "Idol." (Side note: And I'll really, really miss Jimmy.)
The one bright spot of hope here is the addition of the wonderful Harry Connick Jr. to the cast. While I'd been hoping that a true industry insider would snag that third panel seat (my hopes were raised, then dashed, when it seemed like Katy Perry/Ke$ha/Kelly Clarkson super-producer Dr. Luke was about to sign on), if the "Idol" honchos had to hire another singer/recording artist, then Harry is a darn good choice.
Harry's guest spot in Season 9 is still the stuff of "Idol" legend. When he worked with the top five on Sinatra Night, he was one of the best mentors in "Idol" history. He was totally invested, enthusiastic, tough-but-fair, and really frickin' funny. He showed way more personality than most of that year's contestants combined, and took a much more hands-on approach than other mentors: That week, he played with the house band, orchestrated all the musical arrangements, and (according to contestants I spoke with personally) spent the entire day on the set and ate lunch with the kids. (Most mentors pretty much just drop by for a photo opp, then split.) The Season 9 contestants all adored and respected Harry; I think Season 13 viewers will, too.
Then this year, when Harry mentored on Season 12's top four episode, he made an even stronger case for why he'd be a great judge. His entire appearance was like one long, awesome screen test. The best part came when he dared to take a seat behind the judging desk (temporarily displacing his future co-star Keith) and spar with lame-duck judge Randy over what he thought was a silly critique of Kree Harrison's "Stormy Weather" performance. (Randy had suggested that Kree should've performed the Etta James version of the song; Harry said it was more important that Kree get the complicated melody down pat before trying to emulate any particular artist; Harry was right and Randy was wrong.)
"You need to be completely honest and diplomatic," Harry later told TV Guide that night. "There's no reason to be mean, but it's called being a judge. You have to judge, that's what you do." Finally, a guy who gets it.
Harry does appeal to "Idol's" main demo. Let's face it, no matter what ex-MTV production crew Fox hires, "Idol" is never going to be a cool, edgy program. That's just not its audience. An attempt to give the show a youthful, funky makeover last season, with the addition of Nicki Minaj, unfortunately backfired spectacularly with the core conservative "Idol" viewership of Southern and Midwestern moms. Perhaps that is why the producers played it so safe for the coming season. Anyway, those moms will love them some Harry. Like Keith, last season's most popular (not to mention only surviving) judge, Harry is a handsome, fortysomething hunk with a pleasant personality and pleasant discography. And unlike Keith, Harry actually hails from the South (the area of the country that spawned nine of the past 12 "Idol" champs), so he may end up being "Idol's" most popular judge soon enough.
However, while Harry is a Southern gentleman and an easy-listening jazzbo, he still has a bit of an edge, so he could make for some good TV. Just look, in the video above, at how Harry put Randy in his place while making tough diva Nicki laugh...while wearing a black leather Fonzie jacket, yet. Harry's snark even had Ryan Seacrest saying, "You're making Nicki and Mariah look very benign!" So I think Harry has the potential to mix things up next season, while remaining likable. And as some past judges will tell you, that's not all that easy to do.
What do you think of this new judging panel? Are you happy about Harry? Feeling low about J.Lo? Conflicted about the return of Randy? Let me know in the comments section below.