'American Idol' makes history pulling off first at-home quarantined show

“Thank you for making American Idol your choice of entertainment tonight. The world is changing all around us, and we hope that this show is bringing a little happiness this way on your Sunday evening.”

Thus proclaimed Ryan Seacrest — the one American Idol constant since the series premiered in 2002 — from his locked-down Los Angeles living room Sunday night, when Idol made history as the first major TV talent show to proceed during the coronavirus era.

And there was indeed something immensely comforting and heartening about seeing Ryan at the old Season 1 desk where Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson once sat, the show’s familiar neon-blue oval logo glowing behind him, as he assured the nation: “They say the show must go on — and tonight, ours does just that. Even though the lights in our Hollywood studio may have dimmed, our top 20 came to Hollywood and entrusted us with their dreams. And we cannot let them down.”

And show the show didn’t let longtime viewers like myself down, either. When Ryan intoned, “This… is American Idol” — well, I believed him. Because that’s what it felt like, even with the top 20 contestants, performing for viewers’ votes for the first time this season, spread out across North America, and the three judges delivering their remote critiques from isolation. Sunday’s two-hour broadcast maintained the hopeful spirit of the show, plus it boasted impressively high production standards that made previous at-home musical TV broadcasts like the iHeartRadio Living Room Concert for America and One World: Together at Home looking like some wannabe influencer’s iPhone 3 Meerkat video from 2016. (Click here for fascinating details on how exactly Idol’s executive producers and their massive team pulled this off.)

The high-quality audio, the crisp and creative editing (gotta love those Brady Bunch squares showing shots of the live band accompaniment), the contestants’ makeup-tutorial-level primping and set-design-on-a-dime skills… let’s just say Idol really upped the stakes for how rival show The Voice will handle its live episodes in a couple weeks’ time, and for variety/musical television in general.

And who couldn’t crack a smile when fashionista judge Katy Perry showed up dressed up like a bottle of Idol-branded hand sanitizer… and wore that kooky get-up for the entire episode? (That’s this year’s Halloween costume sorted, then.) “I started tearing up — how ridiculous do I feel as a hand sanitizer, crying?” Katy wondered aloud at one point, while trying to deliver a serious critique with a plastic pump on her head. (If Purell wasn’t already a show sponsor, it totally should be now. Get on that, ABC advertising execs!)

Everyone on the show was pumped, so to speak. “This is the most excited I have been in a long time, because I can actually say I have never done this before in my entire career,” proclaimed showbiz veteran Lionel Richie from his home. And even the top 20 contestants seemed eager to adapt to the crazy circumstances.