is back! It will probably take a few weeks before that phrase doesn't appear near the top of every recap, after the iconic franchise's rousing return from a two-year hiatus with a new panel of judges on a new network.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. And so far, season 16 has the exact same feel as the show we knew and loved for a decade of star making (and seasons 12 through 15).
The audition process is officially underway, with standouts like Alyssa Raghu and Dennis Lorenzo impressing judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan during night one. That being said, my socks remained securely in place throughout the premiere.
You need some solid talent sprinkled throughout episode one, but that's not the focus in the beginning. It's all about the reintroduction of the series with a spotlight on the judges (and my growing man-crush on Luke Bryan ... he just makes me happy, and don't judge -- the heart wants what it wants), and you can save the best of the bunch for later.
The next batch of featured auditions comes from New York City, Savannah, Los Angeles and New Orleans, as the search for America's next superstar continues. The Idol hopefuls are said to include a shoe salesman from Washington DC, a construction worker from Southern California and a student from Louisiana. Do they have what it takes to earn a golden ticket?
The opening segment reminds us that Ryan Seacrest is in fact still hosting after he was noticeably lacking in screen time in the premiere, and then 15-year-old Mara Justine slays Rihanna's "Love on the Brain" while making a bunch of funny faces. If her name sounds familiar, it's because the Jersey girl made the Top 12 of America's Got Talent
back in 2014 when she was 11.
There's an assortment of youngsters, kicked off by 16-year-old Andrew Weaver's sweet and simple rendition of Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud." Griffin Tucker is only 15, but his take on The Beatles' "Lady Madonna" has Lionel afraid of the potential once he matures. Then 18-year-old Christina Jones manages to crush Gladys Knight's "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" without snapping the rubber bands attached to her braces. And they're all going to the chocolate factory.
William Casanova is 26 and sells women's shoes, and his name is more of a concept that one bestowed by a parent. "My mom didn't give it to me, but that doesn't make it any less real," he quips before cracking jokes about making toe-less women feel beautiful to sell footwear.
Katy Perry claims she used to have jacked-up toes, but now they're in solid shape and among the Internet's best. Casanova is one of the best pure talents on Ray Charles' "A Song for You," but he needs to enunciate. I can barely make out a word he's singing, but damn if he doesn't sound good singing it. Luke, aka the real-life version of Eric Matthews, calls the performance "exactly what I signed up for," then Katy foots Casanova his ticket.
Michelle Sussett saunters in wearing short shorts and above-the-knee boots, and the native of Venezuela shakes her hips and twerks while belting out something in Spanish. Then she requests -- nay, orders -- the judges to dance. The guys are more than willing to participate, but Katy needs a bit more urging. She falls down, and her short dress makes an Idol censor a necessity.
Luke calls Michelle "a force to be reckoned with" and believes she might be the next Jennifer Lopez, but Katy isn't sure she can hang in this type of competition. It was a fun performance, but it kind of misses the point, in my opinion.
Brandon Diaz is a bit of an Ace Young/Caleb Johnson hybrid, and the 21-year-old Berklee College of Music student is performing "Unaware" by Allen Stone for his father. Pops emigrated from Cuba when he was 3, and this Idol opportunity represents everything his grandparents wanted out of the American dream. He's my favorite so far, with a killer falsetto, because everything is natural and nothing is forced. He keeps it clean and tidy, and Katy predicts he'll make the Top 10.
It's a sweltering 103 degrees in the Big Easy, and 17-year-old bayou boy Laine Hardy brings the heat with The Band of Heathens' "Hurricane." He needs to learn some showmanship and gain confidence, but the gruffness is there and Luke gives him a chance to win.
Cameron Theodos, 25, is a kid version of Jason Mraz who sings an original song, and the judges believe "there is a little something there." They're not ready to throw him away, and with his entire gigantic family in tow, it's three yeses.
Seventeen-year-old Rissa Watson is from tiny Apache, Oklahoma, where her mom owns a furniture and appliance store. Rissa used to sing for customers, but now he's tackling Adele's "When We Were Young" in front of celebrity judges.
She shows off too much unnecessary range and her guitar work is so-so, but she could easily develop into a serious contender once she learns some grit and edge. I feel like I can see her evolution playing out in my head, and she's one to keep an eye on. Luke calls it "chill bump city."
A collection of supportive parents spouting words of wisdom ends with 17-year-old Garrett Lee Jacobs, whose nana Honey thinks he's the best thing since beans and rice. He wishes she could be there for his audition. But, alas, his rendition of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" is dedicated to her. The judges love him, with Luke dubbing him "bad-ass." But I have to be honest, the tone of his voice is not at all pleasing to my ears. They FaceTime grandma to break the good news, and she's every bit as adorable as Garrett.
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
Katy Perry may or may not be on the hunt for a boyfriend, describing herself as "single but not alone," which kicks off a montage of guys hitting on her. One contestant's weird talent is that he can make his neck balloon like a bullfrog, and Katy has the same odd ability. They frogneck together, and she takes solace in knowing that she's not the only one.
Then 27-year-old dreamboat construction worker Trevor Holmes enters the fray, and it's love at first sight. He's got a huge Katy crush -- and, unfortunately, a girlfriend -- and he's only working at job sites to support his mom, who suffers from lupus. Cue the swoon (and a plea from Katy, "Don't respect me!")
He's got a cute voice, performing Brett Young's "In Case You Didn't Know." I don't know if there's any power there, but he makes the ladies blush. Luke tells him to dig in more, but the rest of the critique is drowned out by slow-mo glances under Lionel and Diana Ross' "Endless Love."
The Yes That Should Be No
Ugh, is this going to be a recurring segment? Twenty-year-old Gabbii Jones believes she's the total package, and her dad gave her 30 days to accomplish her goal of becoming a star or she has to go back to school. This is day 20, which feels like 19 too many.
She's got attitude for days, and it's Ariana Grande's "Dangerous Woman" in a full-body sparkle suit. It's not great, with way too much screaming, but Lionel rushes out to hug her afterwards.
"That was really good," he tells her. "There's things we can tone down, but the tone of you is exciting." The judges make a ton of excuses for her awful performance, and they send her to Hollywood.
Blast from the Past
Thaddeus Johnson was on American Idol in season 9, but more impressive than his expanding vocal prowess is his narrowing waistline. He was pushing 400 pounds back in 2010, and now he's a svelte 238.
He became so depressed after his elimination that he considered suicide, but he fought his way back from the brink, changed his eating habits and started exercising. He's dropped 152 pounds, and he's not done yet.
His voice is stronger than it was eight years ago on his rendition of Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child." And even though he needs a lot of work before he'd be a contender, the emotional backstory and his history mean there's no way this doesn't end in a happy way.
Lionel gives him a hug, while Luke will forever love the unassuming character who uses his or her voice to inspire. Katy wants to see who he is as an artist, and she implores him to continue pushing himself.
Isn't She Lovely
Closing out the show is 25-year-old David Francisco, who moved to Nashville to be a professional musician in 2016. Three weeks after arriving, though, he was hit by a distracted driver, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He thought it was all over, but then his leg twitched. Now he's been improving and gaining strength, moving from a wheelchair to being able to walk with crutches.
His old friend Christie was devastated by the accident, and they reconnected as she encouraged him not to give up. Now they're engaged, and this is the first step to reincorporate himself into real life with the hopes of one day supporting himself with his craft.
His rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" brings tears to Katy's eyes, as she watches Christie gaze at David with what she calls the "purest kind of love." Lionel continues distributing the hugs, and I'll admit I'm tearing up a bit. The slowed-down version of the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by Sleeping at Last playing in the background doesn't exactly help.
It takes 37 minutes before our first rejection, which comes courtesy of Misha Gontar. He's from the Ukraine but lives in Chicago, and he performs a weird Ukrainian rap with Ryan before failing to impress the judges.
Autumn Woods is a glam goddess who believes that low and throaty is the pathway to stardom. Instead, she sounds like a toad on Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Luke tells her that he's "not feeling it, sugar plum."
She kicks off a conglomerate of nos, with Hank the Businessman, Neshia Ruffins (who dabs at the end) and Jonathan Herman all sent packing. Katy dubs Jonathan's horrific Spanish rendition of "Unconditionally" a "treat."
Are There Any Frontrunners in This Bunch?
That's it for our second round of auditions, and the standouts for me were Rissa Watson and Brandon Diaz. They seem the most polished with the highest ceilings, and I'll be surprised if I don't end up writing about them a lot.
Mara Justine, contorted facial expressions aside, also seems to have the pedigree for success, and she's no stranger to advancing far in talent competitions. William Casanova has the personality and Trevor Holmes the look, while Thaddeus Johnson and David Francisco are riding their emotional backstories to Hollywood.
Could any of them make waves? Who was your favorite and who do you believe has the talent to stick around the longest? Were you sucked in by Michelle Sussett's infectious energy or Laine Hardy's grit? And am I way off base with my take on Gabbii Jones? Would you have given her a golden ticket? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.