Harry Connick Jr. Restores a Little Bit of My Faith in Humanity, but Just a Little

Graduation 2009I’m not big on reality shows, but you can learn a lot about the state of American culture by watching them, both from the people who volunteer to be on them and the way the producers set them up. Unfortunately, the things you learn usually make you want to start pricing real estate in Costa Rica.

However, “American Idol” has given me a little glimmer of hope recently by adding Harry Connick Jr. to the judges’ panel.

Up til now, the M.O. for the “American Idol” judges had been to have one blandly likable judge who gave tepid praise half the time and tepid criticism the other half, one goofy and possibly high judge who overpraised everybody like a parent trying to make up for missing another birthday party, and one complete jackass who didn’t like anything as much as the sound of his own voice ripping somebody a new one.

But with Harry Connick, they’ve introduced a judge who seems to be something almost completely unheard of on reality TV: a genuinely decent guy.

It’s pretty obvious that Connick knows what he’s talking about — he’s probably forgotten more about music than Simon Cowell will ever know. And he seems genuinely interested in giving the benefits of his knowledge to the contestants. He acts like he wants them to succeed in their music careers even if they don’t win “Idol.” Even when he’s harsh, he’s harsh in a constructive way. The audience boos because they know that’s what they’re supposed to do when a judge is critical, but they like Connick because they know he’s right, and because he’s so darn personable they can’t help it.

Connick’s attitude lifts the other two judges as well. Without him, I think Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban would be the next best thing to empty chairs, but with him, they have a chemistry that makes the panel into something like actual professional mentors. That one guy transforms the show from a gladiator ring for amateur singers into a growth experience for hopeful artists.

Of course, now that “American Idol” has undergone this transformation, it’s having some of its lowest ratings ever. So that’ll teach them not to cater to the absolute lowest common denominator.