AMERICAN IDOL - “301 (Auditions)” – “American Idol” returns to ABC for season three on SUNDAY, FEB. 16 (8:00-10:00 p.m. EST), streaming and on demand, after dominating and claiming the position as Sunday’s No. 1 most social show in 2019. Returning this season to discover the next singing sensation are music industry legends and all-star judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie, as well as Emmy®-winning producer Ryan Seacrest as host. Famed multimedia personality Bobby Bones will return to his role as in-house mentor. (ABC/Eliza Morse) LUKE BRYAN, DOUG KIKER
Photo: Eliza Morse/ABC
Photo: Eliza Morse/ABC

‘American Idol’ season 18 debut recap: no garbage here

This is my 18th season covering “American Idol” and 15th season blogging about it. I’m 50 years old so “Idol” has encompassed 36 percent of my entire life and 64 percent of my professional life. 

But its import in my life has waned significantly over time as it has I’m sure for many folks. I got the screener from ABC of this episode ages ago and could have written all this in advance. Instead, I only watched up to the commercial break a few days ago because an Acworth singer was the first one to sing and I interviewed her. Then I got busy doing other things. Today, my brain was so fixated entertaining my four-year-old daughter, then finishing up the film “The Farewell” on Amazon Primce, the first time I actually remembered  today that “Idol” was back on air was 8:17 p.m. 

With the same three judges and Ryan Seacrest, there isn’t anything really different about this third season on ABC as the previous two. 

The good news is “Idol’ season 17 did discover EDM-leaning Alejandro Aranda (AKA Scarypoolparty), who came in second but immediately sold out theaters nationwide (including Buckhead Theatre not too long agao.) And while the opening seconds name-dropped Laine Hardy, Alejandro was dubbed “the game changer” thanks to his original music. He has a major following and will probably be the most successful “Idol” alum since Phillip Phillips.

My observation: “Idol” is clearly trying to replicate the Alejandro magic by focusing on singer songwriter types who can create original music. We’ll see if that works out. 

They definitely are going for more emotive singers, less showy singers. 

And they dispensed with montages of contestants. There was not a single one. 

“Idol” is still first and foremost a TV show that tries to play up the fact it can turn folks with minimal experience a shot at stardom. So they start in Savannah with garbage man Doug Kiker, who has never sung professionally. They first send him out to “practice” while they brought in another singer. He eventually comes back and sings a really rough version of “Bless This Broken Road.” But there is something humane and real about the dude and there’s enough vocal potential for the judges to give him a ticket to Hollywood. He will get eaten alive out there but having him there should be entertaining.

Who was the singer who performed before Kiker? Camryn Leigh Smith, a bright-eyed 16 year old from Acworth who pulls of an impressive audition of a Jessie J song she has sung since she was eight years old. (I interviewed her.) It shows. She has total comfort and connection with the tune and it’s obviously she is comfortable behind a mic. No nerves at all. Hopefully, she’ll be able to thrive (and not wilt) in Hollywood.

They are followed by Francisco Martin, a college student from San Francisco auditioning in Oregon. (The show now bounces around the country and honestly, the locations where they audition with the judges now are immaterial except for visuals.) Like Camryn, Fransisco (despite expressing so many nerves that Lionel and Luke have to calm him down) is a natural performing a soulful Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska.” “You have an incredible voice,” Katy Perry said, then asked for a few seconds of an original tune. It was about a friend from Australia which led Luke to make a joke about “Grease” that went right over his head. (”Was her name Sandy?”) The snippet sounded good. He is an easy yes to Hollywood. 

Hunter Gibson “The Comeback,” 23, Arcadia, rideshare driver/actor. “Swing Swing” A--American Rejects. He has super amounts of enthusiasm and energy and wants rock to make a “comeback,” thus his nickname. Is he a joke contestant or someone who thinks he’s better than he is? Or fabulous? Hard to tell until he starts singing and we quickly realize he’s ... terrible. Off key and tonally horrific. Sure, he looks the part but that’s about it. I do love that Katy sings along. When she stops him, he keeps going. “That woke me up,” Katy said. They all say no. 

Nick Merico, 23, Woodland Hills, Calif (”You Say” Lauren Daigle)  He is back for a second years. He made it to Hollywood last year but backed out (with no clear explanation.) “You better not ghost us because it triggers me,” Katy said. He has some vocal skills but I don’t particularly like his tone or depth. And he’s hot (and knows it.) Katy isn’t big on his ego. Luke compliments his “heartthrob” status. Then Lionel does his headfake by first saying he doesn’t like him but uses is as a lesson in humility. Or something like that. He’s off to Hollywood. I’m not impressed but who knows? 

Immigrant story alert: Dibesh Rokharel (Arthur Gunn), Nepal native who now lives in Wichita, Kansas. (”Girl From North Country,” Bob Dylan; “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” CCR)  He sounds a lot like Phillip Phillips. His voice has such amazing texture. Katy recommends for his second song to look at the judges. And the second song is better than the first. “Do you notice the connection when you kept your eyes open. You have a great storyteller voice,” Katy said. “You are a rock star!’ Lionel goes up to him and says, “You have no idea what this journey is for. God bless you!” He could be top 10. I love this guy!

Alisa Ermolaev, 28, actress/model (original song). She is not subtle but entertaining. This is not at all “Idol” material at all. I would have given her a ticket just to see what absurd stuff she’d do there.

Louis Knight, 19, London born but Philadelphia since he was 10. (original “Change”). He met a good friend Russell who took his own life. This heartfelt song was in dedication to him. He’s a decent vocalist and the song was okay. Luke thinks he’s the biggest star ever. Katy isn’t sure and wants to keep him humble. I wasn’t totally sold but I await more. 

Savaria, 22, Ontario, Canada (”Tell Me This is Real”): I really like her voice. Nice range. Great emotive voice. Lionel felt she was inconsistent. Katy noted how good a vocalist she is and feels she has potential. Katy is a yes. Lionel is a no. (”She needs to do the discovery work.”) Luke is the tiebreaker: he says no. Katy said “You are crazy!” She is angry. Neither change their mind. I’m surprised too!

Meghan Fitton, 23, Foxboro, Mass. (“Love Where You’re At by Allen Stone.) Cross-ABC promotion alert: she is a “Bachelor” obsessive with her own podcast. Another singer-songwriter bluesy type and she is solid. Luke loved it. Katy was not that impressed, feeling she has good grit and moments but needs to “connect them more.” She gets three roses to Hollywood - and a bonus from Chris Harrison. 

Rough childhood alert: Samantha Diaz (Just Sam), 20, New York City busker. (”You Say” Lauren Daigle, just like Nick Merico) She grew up with her grandmother after her parents abandoned her. She got overly emotional and had to start a second time. The lyrics really hit home and she starts crying. She pivots to “Rise Up,” a more inspirational song. She pulls it off. Luke: “You have those qualities in your voice to tell stories and you can sing really beautifully too.” Katy: “I love your sweet personality. You have a really good voice. Remember where you came from and sing where you want to go.” She feels safe when her grandmother holds her. “I’m not used to people caring,” she said. Lionel: “I want you to feel safe.” Of course, she goes to Hollywood. 

SEMI SPOILER ALERT: Four of the eventual top 20 performed in the debut episode. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.