Even though American Idol's "farewell season" is underway, the show's stars aren't quite ready to say goodbye to Fox's one-time reality juggernaut.
"I'm just in complete denial," judge Keith Urban said Friday at the Television Critics Association winter previews Friday. And while some are taking it even a little harder ("I'm crying myself to sleep each night," host Ryan Seacrest joked), judge Jennifer Lopez said the sadness comes in waves. "It's hit all of us at different times that this amazing thing is about to come to an end," she said.
Even so, Harry Connick Jr. said he and his fellow judges can't forget that they have a job to do. "We all live in the moment," Connick said. "This is the farewell season. We're all sad about that, but I don't think any of us are focusing on that. We're focused on the job at hand, which is to find the next great superstar, which American Idol has been pretty good at."
Indeed, executive producer Trish Kinane says she's constantly focused on not letting nostalgia for the series take over during this final year. That said, former Idol winners — including but not limited to Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Scotty McCreery and reigning champ Nick Fradiani, all of whom joined the panel on Friday-- will have an active role this season.
"We are bringing quite a few of the former Idols to help the new contestants this season," Kinane says. "A lot of the people on the panel today will be coming to work with and duet with our new contestants, and I think that's going to be an amazing couple weeks of programming."
Kinane also added that Idol's very first superstar Kelly Clarkson will guest-judge the first live show of the season and will find some way to participate in the finale, despite being pregnant. But what about original judge Simon Cowell and others who are part of this show's legacy? "We're talking to everybody that's made a huge contribution to this show and we'd love them to come back," Kinane said. "There's all sorts of logistics and schedules and all sorts of other commitments, but I'm pretty confident we'll have an amazing finale with key people you'd expect to see there." To wit: Kinane confirms that thought they tried to get Cowell to play a larger role in the season, he'll probably only appear on the finale.
But will this actually be the final season? Although Kinane acknowledges the show's age ("It wasn't entirely a shock that we're talking about it ending because after 15 seasons, it's something you think about," she said), Seacrest points out the show is still pulling a decent rating. "The numbers look great this season," he said. "We're all pleased that people are watching and that people are coming back that maybe maybe didn't watch the last couple of seasons. When you have a franchise generate X amount of millions of people, if that sustains, does that mean it's the end? I'm not so sure."
So why is it ending? "Whether [Fox is] making a mistake or not? Everybody just goes with a feeling in the moment," Lopez said. "And if that's their feeling right now, that's their feeling,"
While it does seem this season will be it for now, the judges don't rule out the show returning to the air someday. "The Eagles had at least three farewell tours," Urban joked. Added Lopez: "You never know. With a format like this that could work at any time, it's possible. ... I haven't thought about it much, but hypothetically if that happened, American Idol has a special place in my heart, and it's something I would consider. [I'll] always be there when they call."
American Idol airs on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8/7c on Fox.