American Idol2018 debuted March 11 with an exuberant ensemble of hopeful talents from auditions across the country. There were more than enough doubters and critics in television land ready to say that it had only been two years since wrapping Season 15 of “American Idol,” including a grateful send-off from then-President Barack Obama. Is less than a two-year absence from the airwaves worthy of a comeback?

Erstwhile competition host, Ryan Seacrest, signed on early last spring, but the finalized judging panel of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie didn’t sign on the dotted line to take their seats until the fall last year.

The stars of different genres also have differing generational perspectives, but each one can speak to genuine secrets of success that only come with long, hard work and lots of rejection. The three luminaries in chart-topping have not had much time to gel as one, but clearly displayed camaraderie in discovering the gifts of the young hopefuls before them, and already were willing to forgo first judgments and offer a second chance to one young artist and father.

Beyond being the original of its kind, “American Idol” has always been focused most on those staking their lives on fulfilling their dreams of a music career. The banter, the bartering, and the competition between the judges consistently overtake the proceedings on “The Voice,” and even Kelly Clarkson voiced reservations about the 2018 incarnation of the competition that she took in the first year, going head-to-head with her current station on “The Voice.” With the rise of talent TV and social media, many worthy talents gain exposure and certain career boosts, but only “American Idol” can lay claim to genuine, lasting, and Grammy-winning artists.

It's hard to repeat that kind of consistent history, but the opening night had its share of surprising talent and truly heartfelt moments that may make it impossible not to be invested in another “American Idol” season.

The stories matter

In past seasons, judges like Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban related how they never saw the preview profiles of contestants that viewers see, and often, only learned the back stories and struggles of the hopefuls through the weeks of the honing process.

ABC is making a shift in this new season, putting full attention on the stories behind the music, for the panel and the people standing within that famous oval.

Catie Turner certainly told her own story before taking the stage. The vivacious redhead wasn’t shy before the cameras but explained that she was not too popular at school.

That may all change after her audition which echoed of an older Grace VanderWaal in her original song, “21st Century Machine,” which defies the categories of femininity in the current selfie culture. Catie with a “C” got true love from Katy with a “K” and songwriting praise from Lionel Richie. She is likely to have staying power through the coming weeks.

Ron Boltongez captivated the judges with his story, especially Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. The young immigrant from the Congo described his father's brutal form of discipline, and how it drove a wedge in their relationship. Music was a way of expression once the musician made his way to the United States, and it turned life toward the positive.

Ron is a father now, striving to raise his child with hope and nurturing. Lionel Richie heard everything in Ron’s audition and was a solid vote to Hollywood. Katy felt that this was not quite Ron’s time, encouraging him to wait and work on his own identity. Luke was torn, but declined, until he decided he couldn't let Ron go.

“I should've fought for him,” Bryan declared to Richie. They summoned Boltongez back to announce that Luke had changed his vote, and the future, at least for a few weeks, is changed for Ron.

Maddie Pope made her way to the panel's approval, too. Lionel Richie loved the “storyteller” in her voice.

Koby already had been cast on the Broadway stage and thought she was a shoo-in for this competition.

Her original song, “Never Stop,” which was, in fact, one sentence, “The devil never stops coming after you,” was delivered with such powerful ferocity that it overpowered the panel. Each judge recommended that she stay committed to the Great White Way rather than a recording contract. She remained stupefied for a number of takes.

Always hope

Harper Grace has the unfortunate distinction of being listed as the worst singer of the national anthem under major search engines, but the Texas native was determined to impress in another way with this audition. She was dead on with her original song, “Yard Sale,” which impressed all the panel, particularly Katy, with its distinctive attention to detail.

Katy Perry put her signature on Harper's “dream board,” annotating that her “American Idol” audition had been realized with gold.

Layla Spring brought out her little sister, Dixie, to sing a song together before her own audition. The panel was so completely charmed that Katy Perry issued an advance golden ticket for 2026, allowing Dixie through to Hollywood. When it was Layla’s solo turn, she sang “Who’s Loving You” (Jackson Five version). Lionel Richie approved her as fit for Hollywood because “you're strong,” he asserted. Only time will tell if that strength will keep her in good stead under heavy competition.

Benjamin Glaze got his first kiss from Katy Perry, and got it memorialized in a photo, but got no golden ticket.

Nico Bones had the look of a rock singer, with plenty of attitude, but no sign of talent in his song, “Worms.” The talent tide surged in with Noah Davis, an Arkansas nursing student who dreamed of buying an alpaca once he became the “American Idol.” His rendition of Rihanna’s “Stay” was so pure and moving that it brought tears, along with big hugs from all the panel. The moment was simply beautiful.

Alyssa Raghu is only 15, but Katy Perry has already proclaimed her as “Top 10” for the season. She sang Ariana Grande’s “Almost Is Never Enough” with professionalism far beyond her years. It was impossible not to be impressed.

The next surprise was Zach D’Onofrio, who walked out bearing socks custom-chosen for each judge.

They were extremely appreciative, and Katy Perry even put her cat motif socks on her hands before Zach launched into Sinatra. He nailed not just the song but earned a dance with Katy Perry. The panel was in disbelief over the difference in his speaking voice and his singing ability. “Unique” was the praise for Zach, along with “killed it” from Lionel Richie, along with a golden ticket for the teen. Luke Bryan dubbed Zach as “Harry Potter,” and Harry Potter never got Katy Perry swooning.

The last performer of the night was Dennis Lorenzo, who carried his own trauma from childhood along with his guitar bearing a hole. His father was murdered when he was five, and he found himself on the wrong side of life until a guitar became his salvation.

The Allen Stone song, “Unaware” could not have been more perfect. The panel applauded his ability to make such music from such a bare but beloved instrument, and his golden ticket capped an unexpectedly moving first night.