"Idol" is back -- Simon-free, good-hearted and still kind of fun

The first "American Idol" was a phenomenon -- sometimes nasty, always interesting. The new version -- starting Sunday and Monday (March 11 and 12) on ABC -- has lost its venom, but not its entertainment value. I found the opener -- click "TV column" above -- to be breezy and fun; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

“American Idol”
is back – sort of.

This new version
–talented singers, warm stories, pleasant judges – is a distant
cousin to the “Idol” that caused a sensation in the summer of
2002. That one was partly propelled by venom and failure.

And now? “We want
the humor,” said showrunner Trish Kinane. “But we don't want the

The original was
something Americans hadn't seen before – a caustic Englishman,
telling young singers just how awful they were.

“The tone of my
comments is part of the entertainment,” Simon Cowell wrote in “I
Don't Mean To Be Rude, But ...” (Broadway Books, 2003). “Without
it, 'American Idol' wouldn't be half as much fun, either for me or
the viewers.”

The show was
supposed to reflect reality, he wrote, “and trust me – the music
industry is not nice.”

Viewers approved. On
a network (Fox) that rarely pierced the top-20 in the annual Nielsen
ratings, “Idol” was No. 2 in its third and fourth seasons, No. 1
after that.

It drooped a bit
after Cowell left in 2010 and a lot after “The Voice” caught on.
Fox dropped it two years ago, but ABC has revived the show, keeping
its host (Ryan Seacrest) ... but not its original tone.

“There is only one
Simon Cowell,” Kinane said, “and he was 15 years ago.”

And the new judges?
“I'm blunt,” said Katy Perry, who calls Cowell her favorite
judge. “But I can't be mean, because I'm a woman.”

That last part was,
presumably, in jest. In the opener, it's clear that the others are
more lenient than she is. Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie override
Perry and send a singer to Hollywood, based far more on his back
story than on his current talent.

Strong stories fill
the opener. One singer was 11 when she was mocked as the worst
National Anthem singer since Roseanne; she's now talented. Others
survived tough childhoods in Philadelphia and in the Congo. We meet
lots of teen outsiders, from an affable farm kid to a guy who talks
like a cartoon character and sings like Sinatra.

“We need those
beautiful stories right now,” Perry said, “to help lift us up,
inspire us.”

Bryan – an
easygoing guy who grew up on a Georgia peanut farm – quickly gets
involved. “I'm in there on the emotional ride with these kids,”
he said.

Richie -- who's been
described by his adoptive daughter Nicole as “the happiest person I
know” -- is also into that emotional ride.

“These kids are
showing up at 15 years old,” he said. “At 15 years old, I can't
tell you what I was thinking, except it certainly wasn't standing on
a stage in front of millions of people, being critiqued”

-- “American
Idol,” 8-10 p.m. Sundays and Mondays, ABC, beginning March 11.

-- Tentative plans
have the Monday episodes continuing through April 23; then “Idol”
will be Sundays-only, until the finale May 20-21.