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An early favorite from last season, Laine Hardy returns to support another contestant, but can the judges convince him to try again?

There's a new sense of joyousness on "American Idol" this season, and the producers picked up on it with their intro to this episode: these judges are really having fun.

More than any judging panel in the stories history of the show, this trio is truly enjoying not only the experience of making the show, but one another and all of the contestants they get to see. You can tell by how playful and silly they're willing to get.

Just tonight we had Luke carrying a kid on his shoulders so he could lasso Katy, while another contestant had her doing the worm and something that almost resembles breakdancing. There's a playfulness from the panel that's helping to soothe frayed nerves and really bringing out the best in everyone.

This is a far cry from the nastiness of the early season and the cattiness of the Mariah-Nicki debacle. It's a kinder, gentler and more loving "American Idol," but it's also perhaps the most fun we've yet had on the show. It's just the kind of feel-good TV the world is demanding right now ... plus, there's some damned fine talent on display.

Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan.

Just for giggles, I'm going to rank the auditions each night from worst to first to see who my favorites are. Will they move on? Will the judges get it right? After all, we know I'm right, so they just need to get on board.

Ashton Gill / Laine Hardy

20 years old / 18 years old "Broken Halos," Chris Stapleton / "Take a Load Off Fanny," The Weight

Laine Hardy from last season joined her on guitar, but seems to be doing alright by himself. He's got merch, a new grill and a whole new level of confidence. As for Ashton, she has that classic country crackle to her voice, as well as that unique lilt that's almost becoming a product of a bygone era. Her falsetto wasn't quite on point but there's something in there that could emerge and be really special. We weren't nearly as on board with it as the judges, but she is moving on. And then Laine showed how it's done sounding loads better than last year and like a real contender. Poor Ashton totally got upstaged by Laine, getting invited and agreeing to go to Hollywood. And for the record, this is Ashton's placement; Laine rises to third on the night.

Austin Michael Robinson

15 years old "Your Man," Josh Turner

Did no one tell Austin that Scotty McCreery basically broke this song for "American Idol" forever? He was affecting a bit too much of the country lilt in a way that didn't sound authentic, and just as he did in announcing his choice, Austin mush-mouthed his way through half of those lyrics. The bottom line is he just isn't ready for this kind of show right now, and it's too soon to see if some seasoning would help him find his voice. As it stands, though, he's already way out of his league. Nevertheless, the guys put him through in the hopes he could find his way in a hurry. It was all worth it to see Luke hoist him up on his shoulders so he could lasso Katy.

Peter Lemongello Jr.

_19 years old "I Can't Help Myself," The Four Tops

His father basically created the infomercial -- which we have very mixed feelings about -- but Peter Jr. is more a throwback performer channeling the old style both vocaly and even with their moves. Lionel called it in that he was aping the group almost too much. Now, Peter knows the Temptations and the Four Tops personally, so this is clearly a loving homage, but what does it tell us about who he is as an artist? This was basically good tribute band level. Katy threw him a yes, but it was otherwise a no so he's going to have to just buy airtime and sell his music himself.

Drake McCain

17 years old "His Eye on the Sparrow" / "Oh Happy Day"

Drake dropped two gospel songs, and wound up doing both of them as duets with Katy. He sounded a little immature vocally, but there was also real power behind what he brought. The real question, though, was what he could do with secular or more popular music, as gospel probably isn't going to win "American Idol." We're not sure sure it's there, but the judges were too wrapped up in the whole experience, so we're all going to find out together.

Shawn Robinson

21 years old "Who You Are," Jessie J

Shawn tried too much, putting runs on almost every note, but there's something very sweet and innocent about his voice. He brought an interesting quality to this Jessie J jam and while it lacked some of the heart and passion that she put on it -- as if he wasn't quite selling the power she put on this song -- he definitely has a smooth and simple quality to his voice. He needs to push it up a level, as Katy said, and maybe simply find the note sometimes and linger there. That works, too.

Jake Puliti

20 years old "This Is How We Do It," Montell Jordan

All the props in the world to Jake as he was able to power his way through this club track with Luke drunk dancing beforehand and Katy breakdancing (badly) while her actually auditioned. He put a nice acoustic spin on it and had a solid quality to his voice, but there was nothing super-special about it. Still, the fact that he stepped way outside the box with his song choice and made it fit an acoustic jam shows he might be one of the more interesting contestants of the season.

Riley Thompson

16 years old "Oh Daddy," Riley Thompson

There was a whispery quality to Riley's voice that was a little unexpected in someone so young, but she also had an effortless country sound that could translate well into stronger songs that are better suited to her natural quality. Her original song was okay, but it wasn't the best showcase of her voice in a natural way as it had a forced power note in the middle of the chorus that was actually jarring. But still you can tell what a talent she is and what a unique quality she has that could really grow through the season.

Nate Walker

_18 years old "Say Something," A Great Big World

A childhood friend of Gabby Barrett, a finalist last season, Nate brought it stronger than she did in her first audition. He took the song to church, and even though the runs were a little over the top and his falsetto didn't quite hit the mark, he has one of the most exciting voices so far this season. Maybe it's because that song wants to be performed with simple elegance, but there's no faulting the quality of what he brings. He's an exciting one to watch, and on the right song he's going to soar.

Clay Page

24 years old "Die a Happy Man," Thomas Rhett

There's a gentleness to Clay's voice that just lures you in. He kept his eyes locked down and away from the judges but nevertheless drew them and us into his world with an almost alluring quality to his softer voice. When he hit the bigger chorus, he did well there, too, making him a natural storyteller through music. This is a talent that could take country music by storm and it's so effortless for him.

Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon

27 years old "Almost Heaven," Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon

So Jeremiah just came out and slapped his whole family with some reality for how they've responded to him coming out. His original song was absolutely beautiful, the lyrics were incredibly powerful and he sang it almost perfectly. There's a pureness to his voice that doesn't waver as he move into his upper registers, which can be hard to find. He's got an impressive range, and he pours his pain and passion into his performances, making them something special to watch. If only his family could be more supportive and loving of who he is.

Madison VanDenburg

16 years old ""Speechless," Dan and Shay

Sometimes the right song and the right voice come together and create magic, and that's just what she witnessed. Rarely does a high school vocalist have this level of command and power of her instrument, but Madison sings like she's been seasoned in her voice for the past ten years. Her range is impeccable, and while she has great strength in her voice, it was her knowledge of when to use it and when to hold back that really made for an affecting performance.

Wade Cota

27 years old "Blame It on Me," George Ezra

Did Wade affect hat Ezra-esque rasp to his voice or is that something he already had? It really sounded great on this rendition, which he filled with passion and heart. He sounded absolutely fantastic on this song with a voice more mature than even his 27 years. That's a voice that's been lived in and experienced some things, which you could hear even without knowing his story of childhood abuse.

"American Idol" continues Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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