American Idol: Why Detroit creates hope for a strong season

American Idol recap: On Wednesday night, American Idol aired its Detroit auditions. For the first time this season, the contestants were as captivating as the new panel of judges.

Kevork Djansezian/REUTERS
American Idol Judge, Jennifer Lopez, participates in the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter 2014 presentations in California, January 13, 2014. Jennifer rejoins the panel with Season 12 judge Keith Urban and new judge Harry Connick, Jr.

Ever since "American Idol" lost the original panel of judges they've been in something of a free fall. Sure, the ratings were still enough to keep them relevant but each year what made the show great, seemed to weaken. Change after change was announced. New judges, new rules, new format, new mentors. It began to feel like we were watching a hapless victim trapped in quicksand; the more they struggled the deeper they sunk.

Last season, despite the ever constant strength of Ryan Seacrest and the charm of new judge, Keith Urban, Idol went under.

Weighed down by the ridiculous, contentious duo of Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj, American Idol just couldn't manage to keep its head above the sand. Of course, even bad Idol ratings are still better than most successful shows so those making money from the show weren't ready to throw in the towel, even if that meant destroying the memory of what made the show great in its heyday. So this year, when Idol returned with yet a new configuration of judges, it was hard to get excited. We'd seen it all before and had resigned ourselves to the fact that Idol had passed the point of no return. 

Then came the Season 13 premiere and Harry Connick, Jr. exploded onto the screen with the all of the intelligence and wit the show had sorely been lacking and we were intrigued. Episode two reminded us that Keith Urban was the only reason we kept tuning in last season and that pairing him with Harry was a stroke of brilliance. And finally, this week everything came together. The panel's dynamic was firing on all cylinders. Their playful banter and seemingly genuine fondness for one another resulted in that warm happy glow one feels when they are watching good television. Add in a plethora of remarkable auditions and something completely unexpected occurred. American Idol managed to recapture what they had lost so long ago. 

To quote Jennifer Lopez, "When something doesn't work, it just doesn't. But when it does, it's magic."

Surely not the deepest quote ever referenced but what it lacks in eminence, it makes up for in relevance. This season, American Idol is working again and it is – after most people had given up hope – magic at its best. 

We must be cautious, though. After all, Idol was submerged in the quicksand for a long time. There is no guarantee that she can make a full recovery, especially in her advanced years. And while cynicism suits this writer most of the time, sometimes she just wants to let her hair down, don her rosiest glasses, and write of hope and rainbows and butterflies – and Harry and Keith! 

OK, that's enough euphoria. What exactly was up with JLo smacking on a big ol' wad of gum while she is on television? When you attend an Idol live taping, the chewing of gum is absolutely prohibited. There is actually a woman who walks up and down the rows of audience members looking for those who attempted to smuggle in the chewy contraband. Those who are caught chewing risk losing their seats. Apparently, you know you've arrived when you're allowed to tackily chew gum while on television. Although to be fair, the unsophisticated snapping of gum was the perfect accessory to JLo's plaid, lumberjack shirtdress.

But gum aside, nothing was going to distract viewers from the line up of stellar auditions in Detroit. One by one they emerged from "The Chamber," Idol's new cage, into which contestants are corralled to await a flashing green light that indicates they can take to the audition room. It's all very "Hunger Games" inspired.

There were many great auditions Wednesday night, but let us touch upon just a few of the remarkable standouts because it wouldn't come as a surprise to learn that we had met our 13th American Idol in Detroit.

Keri Lynn Roche: Perhaps there's a bit of bias here because she sang such a great song, but Keri's version of "Radioactive," was fresh and compelling. Then, for a second round, she gave us, "I'd Rather Go Blind," by Etta James. Harry loved that she doesn't care about the camera and just performs (something tells me he and Mariah Carey wouldn't have hit it off) and Keith was impressed by her "artistry." 

Malaya Watson, 15, impressed the judges not just with her commanding vocal but also with her natural confidence. She easily earned her ticket to Hollywood and the judges expressed excitement about watching her blossom throughout the competition.

Melanie Porras's version of "Fever," set to guitar, followed by an acoustic performance of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," was effortless. Throw in a super cute doting father who gave up his musical dreams to raise her by himself and you've got yourself the first contestant who begs the question, "Could she win this?"

That is, until Jade Lathan, Sydney Arterbridge (a young Melinda Doolittle), and Marielle Sellars all left us asking the same question.

But every year, there is one audition that just captivates me. Wednesday night, the golden ticket into this writer's good graces was given to Ryan Nisbett. Just as it is difficult to distill Wednesday's strong contestants down to a few select individuals, it is equally difficult to extract just a few reasons why Ryan is on the top of the list tonight. First off, he has a great back story; he used to weigh 300 pounds. Yes, that story is totally overused but to watch Ryan, who says he adopted a diet free of gluten and dairy to lose the excess weight, completely own his slightly eccentric hipster style is impressive. It's as if he has become who he was always intended to be and he exhibits none of the insecurities that many once-obese people seem to possess after losing weight. His confidence, his style and his performance of "Angel," were enough to earn him top billing in this Idol episode but then he went the extra mile by politely declining to shake hands with Keith and Ryan because he had coughed into his hand after his performance. Someone give this guy his golden ticket!

And there you have it, the highlights of one of Idol's best episodes in years. Let us take a brief moment of silence to commemorate such a significant day in Idol history. Just a moment and then feel free to sound off in the comments. Do you agree that Idol has found its groove again? What did you think of the contestants? Any stand outs you felt should have been on the list? Now's your chance to be heard!

And don't forget to follow me on Twitter at @jodibwrites.

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