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Keith Urban arrives at the "American Idol" finale at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live on Thursday, May 16, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Scott D. Pierce: Harry, J. Lo and Keith are golden ‘American Idol’ judges

By Scott D. Pierce

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jan 09 2014 11:44 am • Last Updated Jan 09 2014 09:41 pm

Fox is devoting a whole lot of time, energy and advertising dollars to a campaign designed to convince us that "American Idol" is going back to its roots.

Don’t you believe it. It’s just not true.

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And this is a good thing. In its 13th season, "Idol" has been reborn as, perhaps, a kinder, gentler — and more entertaining — version of itself.

At least in the early part of the season, the show is unavoidably about the judges. And the triumvirate of Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban gets off to an incredibly good start when the show returns on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Fox/Ch. 13.

They just might be the best "Idol" judging panel yet.

You’ll get a glimpse of it in the premiere. They have chemistry; they’re having fun. They’re fun to watch.

When the three judges and host Ryan Seacrest were in Salt Lake City for auditions in October, it was clear these people liked each other.

"It’s been great," Seacrest said. "It’s been fun. We’ve all had a great time together. We all enjoy hanging out with each other and traveling together and doing the show together."

Things have changed from a year ago, when Mariah Carey, asked to say something nice about Nicki Minaj, couldn’t do it. She talked instead about her sinus infection. Really.

I don’t think we’re going to see any video of Connick, Lopez and Urban screaming at each other. But we do see genuinely amusing banter among them. Like when Connick says, "Don’t argue with me Jennifer. Jennifer, I will slap you on national television. I have no problem."

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"That would never happen," Lopez says with a laugh.

"You’re right," Connick says as Lopez playfully punches him.

Connick is a revelation as a first-time "Idol" judge. He’s smart, charming and funny. Laugh-out-loud funny.

He talks about how some of the contestants are the same age as his teenage daughters, but he’s not a creeper hitting on them the way Steven Tyler did.

And he has a talent for telling people no without being Simon Cowell-esque cruel.

"It’s easy to come down on people because we’re judges," Connick said. "But I have the utmost respect for anybody who takes this opportunity seriously. And 99 percent of them do."

There’s the occasional goofball, but most of the hopefuls we see in the first two hours are legit. Even if they they’re told no.

He makes Lopez more likable. He doesn’t hog the spotlight, allowing Urban to be loose and funny as well.

And Urban deserves this after suffering through the Carey-Minaj histrionics last season.

For nearly a decade, I’ve watched "American Idol" when I had to. When somebody local made the finals.

Now, I’ll watch because I actually enjoy the show.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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