After two weeks of clip shows, American Idol is finally coming back to resume the Season 18 competition on ABC Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET. The episode was completely filmed at the homes of the Top 20 contestants, judges, host Ryan Seacrest and mentor Bobby Bones. Fans can expect to see something similar to the remote Saturday Night Live at Home episodes or recent musical specials like ACM Presents: Our Country and Our World: Together at Home.
Sunday's "Top 20 Sing for America" will not be live, or at least as live as what fans are used to. Variety reports that the show will be produced "live to tape," which will give producers enough time to edit the show into something ABC can air without glitches. It also means contestants will not have to worry about their performances being hurt by tech issues. The episode is also the first of four planned for this format, meaning a big chunk of the contestants will be eliminated at the end. By the beginning of the May 3 episode, there will only be 10 contestants left.
Despite the condensed time frame, ABC alternative series senior vice president Rob Mills told Variety the contestants will have enough time to perform. "It's going to be more cutthroat because you’re going to see more people eliminated each week than normal," he explained. "So there is going to be less room for error. And I think that will make it more exciting."
American Idol showrunner Trish Kinane, who is also the president of Idol co-producer Fremantle, told Variety they produced segments from "about 45 different locations." The producers sent iPhone cameras and lighting kits to the contestants and have taught them how to set things up to film their performances. They also consulted with them on wardrobe, makeup and hair so they look their best on television.
"I think some of the looks that we and the kids together are pulling off in their homes are great," Kinane said. "One of our contestants took it upon himself to build a little stage in his garage with backdrops, and it’s looking amazing. They're bringing out cushions and tapestries and goodness knows what else out of their cupboards. We've got one girl who has a lake as a backdrop, which looks fantastic. I'm proud of the quality that we hope to be able to deliver."
Another big issue for the team was figuring out how to integrate the in-house band led by Kris Pooley. "We've had a pianist in one home, the vocal coach in another home, the contestant in another home, the producers in another home, all popping in and out of Zoom rooms trying to do the vocal coaching," Kinane said. "Kris Pooley and the guys have been producing amazing tracks virtually."
Executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick told TVInsider there will still be celebrity guests and other features Idol fans have come to expect. "We have these four from home episodes coming up and have to make all of them interesting," she explained. "We've always been about surprises, especially with the finale and those duets because I think people have come to love those so much. We had some ideas before we went remote, and a lot of those ideas are transferring in a different format. Everyone has been so up for it and positive too. People want to jump in and do what they can. It's pretty amazing."
After each contestant performs, judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie will comment on their performances. Once the episode is over, fans will get to vote through the usual means, including the American Idol app and website.