Harry Connick Jr.

Who dat? Only the best thing to happen to American Idol in this post—Simon Cowell era.

Harry Connick Jr. may not be as instantly recognizable as his fellow Idol panelists Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban, but in a world where too many reality-show judges act more like cheerleaders (yes, The Voice, this even applies to you), this New Orleans crooner and accomplished cutup has what I'd call (apologies to Cowell) the X — or expert — factor. He's exceptionally entertaining, extremely knowledgeable and expansively personable — even when his explosive opinions earn him the labels  "Hatchet Harry" and "Harsh Harry" from the kinder, gentler Lopez and the occasional disgruntled contestant. But how can you not love an Idol judge who hates the word pitchy and refuses to be wowed by caterwauling vocal gymnastics?

"Some people on this panel are very easily impressed by licks," Connick said early on, making it clear he's not one of them. Though he's no pushover, he is an enthusiast whom you believe when he tells a hopeful, "I'm rooting for you." Throughout Idol's multi-city auditions, he often remarks on a singer's potential for growth. "That's gonna be a fun watch," he gushed after one successful tryout. Takes one to know one.

Connick is the life of this party, needling J. Lo for never flying commercial, then cradling a contestant in his arms out of sheer delight at having a fan single him out amid this starry company. He takes the music — but not himself — very seriously, and often cracks up the crew with his wacky antics while horsing around with Urban and Lopez. Such a refreshing change from last season's distracting and asinine Nicki-vs.-Mariah snipefest.

Connick, who was among Idol's most engaging mentors in past seasons, is even more adept in this new role, and the chemistry on the current panel is at least on par with the more celebrated Voice cast. As Idol wraps its auditions this week (8/7c, Wednesday and Thursday, on Fox) before heading to Hollywood, I find myself looking more forward to the actual competition than I have in years.

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THE SPY WHO LOVED HIMSELF: Before there was a James Bond, there was an incorrigibly devil-may-care rogue with a license to seduce: Bond's creator Ian Fleming, who delights in tweaking military authority and engaging in literal slap-and-tickle with bedmates. (The more you get to know Fleming, you may be surprised he didn't name his hero James Bondage.) The author is portrayed as both hero and heel in BBC America's four-part biographical romp Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond (10/9c, Wednesdays through Feb. 19). A smoldering Dominic Cooper plays Fleming as a callow, spoiled playboy who begs to differ when his apoplectic boss in WWII Naval Intelligence tells him, "War is not some entertainment laid on for your amusement."

Everything's a game to this reckless scamp, whether it involves treacherous espionage or carnal intrigue with a married socialite (Lara Pulver, Sherlock's Irene Adler). "Ian likes his women to suffer. The agony of hope, that's his specialty," warns his disapproving mother (Lesley Manville). Actually, his greatest gift was that of imagination, and Fleming is especially enjoyable as it dramatizes the exploits that would give birth the immortal 007.

THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: One last blast of spellbinding mayhem on FX's American Horror Story: Coven (10/9c), in a season finale that promises the ascension of a new Supreme (and we're not talking Diana Ross's replacement). ... Also nearing its season's (or seasoning's) end: Bravo's Top Chef (10/9c), in the first half of a two-part Maui finale that also reveals which contestant from Last Chance Kitchen will be rejoining the game. ... Could be a big bang for PBS, which presents Hawking (10/9c, check tvguide.com listings), the first autobiographical documentary of physicist Stephen Hawking, much of it told in his own words. ... The title hero of CW's Arrow (8/7c) tries to mentor young Roy and keep a lid on his new superpowers, but easier said than done with the Bronze Tiger back on the loose with the Earthquake Machine in his possession. ... It's about time Detective Olivia "Hard Luck" Benson (Mariska Hargitay) got some good news. She's officially sworn in as Sergeant on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (9/8c). ... Fans get to vote for Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials (8/7c, CBS) in a special hosted by Boomer Esiason and Person of Interest tigress Sarah Shahi. Remember when we had to wait for game day to experience the ads? Now we get ads for the ads as part of the hype, and it's just not the same.

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