Chalk me up as one of those people who greeted the news that Ellen DeGeneres is joining the judging panel for season 9 of American Idol with the sudden urge to drive a fork into my thigh and wake up from a strange and horrible nightmare. (Side note: We all do dream about Idol on a regular basis, right? Right.)
Now don’t get me wrong. I adore Ellen DeGeneres. As a comedian, that is. I’ve seen her live in concert twice. I watched every episode of The Ellen Show (her short-lived 2001 series with Cloris Leachman, not to be confused with the groundbreaking sitcom Ellen, which I also loved). Heck, I’d even tune in to something as hein as the People’s Choice Awards if they brought her in as host. But as a permanent replacement for Paula Abdul as the fourth judge on my very most favorite television show? Can I get a “hell to the no” up in here?
If you caught Ellen sitting in as a guest panelist a couple months ago on So You Think You Can Dance, then you probably understand my dismay. Ellen treated the gig like an extended (and extremely strained) standup routine, essentially making the focus all about herself while failing to provide even an Abdullian level of critical feedback. By ignoring her dismal, one-episode track record as a reality-show judge, Idol‘s producers once again expose three deadly blind spots that continue to put at risk the short- and long-term health of television’s top-rated show.
1) American Idol is, always has been, and always will be about the contestants. The day the show stops churning out future Carrie Underwoods, Fantasia Barrinos, and Chris Daughtrys — performers who’ve reached superstar status in concert, on Broadway, and on radio — then it simply becomes another cog in the low-stakes reality-television wheel. So why have a fourth judge at all? Why take away precious screen time from the true stars of the show? I don’t know about you guys, but I’d have traded a thousand of Randy’s “for me, for yous” last season for just a few more seconds of singing from Kris, Adam, and Allison. Those kids — the ones who you’d never heard of in January, but whose music you can’t wait to buy in November — are the only A-list talents Idol should be worried about pimping.
2) Until (or unless) Ellen drops the “nice gal” persona, then she will not be representing the “people’s point of view,” which is how she described her Idol role while taping an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show that will air today. People love Simon Cowell not for his taste in Hanes v-neck undershirts, but because he often has the courage to express on national television the exact — and not always polite — thoughts they’re having on their couches at home. Simon Cowell is the voice of the people. And my deepest fear is that in her new role, Ellen DeGeneres will be the voice of a beloved talk-show host and comedian who’s too concerned about damaging her public image to provide the kind of niceties-free feedback that the audience — and yes, the contestants themselves — need and deserve.
3) Credibility counts — or at least it ought to — when it comes to the judges panel. Which isn’t to say that Randy or Paula (or at this point Kara) necessarily represented a dream team of stimulating, high-minded feedback. Nor is it to say that an Idol judge needs to bandy about terms like legato or crescendo or “package artist” to do his or her job well. But look at the panel on Project Runway, for example. Even when I vehemently disagree with Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and Heidi Klum, I never stop respecting them, nor do I find myself questioning their credentials, or their ability to spot a shoddy seam or bunky tailoring or an insane crotch. Is it possible Ellen has the ability to separate the Ramiele Malubays from the David Cooks, the Jorge Nuñezes from the Kris Allens? I sure hope so. But based on her SYTYCD performance, I can’t shake the deep fear that American Idol is adding creampuff to the menu when we really need some bitter lemon.
Of course, only time will tell how (and how much) Ellen’s presence on the panel will affect Idol. At the very least, I’m hoping that Simon and Ryan will once and for all ditch their regularly scheduled homophobic banter now that they’ve got a (powerful) lesbian colleague in their presence. And even if Ellen’s Idol tenure yields little more than corny punch lines — “Are you two carpenters? ‘Cause you nailed it!” she blathered during her SYTYCD run — perhaps it’ll awaken a dormant-yet-skilled critic deep inside Randy or Kara. Hey, maybe that’s crazily optimistic, but the alternative — that my very most favorite television show is standing at the edge of a gasoline lake with lit matches beneath its toenails — is simply too much for me to contemplate.
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