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Harry Connick Jr. is the greatest "American Idol" judge of all time

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 23, 2014

I know, we are not talking about a big pool of people here. But the retooled "Idol's" best move has been the inclusion of Connick on a panel with Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban.

This is not simply because Connick, Lopez and Urban seem to get along for the most part; while there has been some grumping, including about Lopez's high maintenance, even that has been good-natured -- and Connick can get away with a crack like the one in the clip above in a way that never would have happened between, say, Mariah and Nicki. Between those two, there would have been blood.

But the more mellow relationship among the judges has come with much more focus on the singers auditioning so far, and it is in dealing with those singers that Connick shines. Very good as a mentor on the show, and a student of what the show has done right and wrong over the years, Connick brings two essentials to the auditions. He is deadly serious about vocals and performances, and not at all serious about the artifice of "Idol" and its performers.

He can accordingly do a wicked mocking of contestants' generic mannerisms -- at least when they are not in the room -- and mercilessly judge their singing.

It was reported before the season started that this season would get away from the weepy personal stories and from the spectacularly bad singers, and for the most part that has been true. Instead, there are  mostly straightorward auditions leading into thoughtful critiques from Connick, and that in turn has freed both the softhearted Lopez and the thoughtful but not mean Urban to be even more pointed in their own comments.

Sure, there have been singers I would not have let through, and maybe one or two I would have. But the decisions being made on the show are logical. When they rejected a young singer from Chagrin Falls, the reasons were clear and inarguable -- and made even clearer when the judges soon after let through a singer who had what the reject lacked.

But even when Connick is displeased, there are no echoes of Simon Cowell and his "I don't mean to be rude, but ..." tee-ups*.This makes the show far more business-like, and should make viewers who are interested in good singers more inclined to tune in, since there's reason to believe the show wants to wind up with several spectacular vocalist s in the final instead of some blandly appealing personality. (Do I have to name names?)

But this approach has a problem when it comes to ratings, which have not been up to "Idol" mega-standards even if the show keeps winning its time period. A direct, less adorned presentation like the current one does not get people talking the next morning. There's a shortage of spectacular incompetents or nasty egomaniacs to feed the chatter on morning radio. (And the ego and inability have been on both sides of the judging table in the past.) There's just so much capable talk, and thatr translates into buzz-kill.

Interestingly, all of this is akin to the situation with "So You Think You Can Dance," which has a history of undramatoc  jiudges and focus on performance.(It is also a pet project of Nigel Lythgoe, a former "American Idol" mastermind, for whom "SYTYCD": was almost an antidote to the crazed excesses of "Idol.") "SYTYCD" has its passionate followers -- my wife among them -- but never achieved "Idol"-scale ratings, partly because dance reaches fewer people than singing, partly because it was relatively understated and so less buzz-worthy.

"Idol" may therefore be a better show than in recent seasons, but still a less-watched one. It doesn't help, either, that it has yielded a lot of ground to "The Voice," which begins another round on Feb. 24. (For all the claims about being a vocal showcase, "The Voice" has also been more of a TV drama, and one whose winners have not been particularly succesful after the show ended.) But, even if we are early in the latest incarnation of "Idol," it is something that I find myself watching more happily than a season ago. Even if I don't have a Nicki/Mariah shocker to discuss the next day.

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