What to make of the reboot of ‘American Idol‘ that has been taking shape over the past 24 hours? The days when only Simon Cowell was departing from the judges’ table seem positively boring compared to the last day, in which Ellen DeGeneres departed, Kara DioGuardi was rumored to have been fired, and Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were floated as new names for the panel, which would return to the three-judge format of the first seven ‘Idol’ seasons.
The game of Judging Table Musical Chairs — the results of which will be officially announced during Fox’s presentation at the Television Critics’ Association conference on Monday — was probably inevitable given the reportedly impending return of executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who was not a fan of the four-judge panel and who in April said that the appointment of DeGeneres hadn’t “worked out as well as we would have hoped.” But the speed at which rumors and news regarding the changes has leaked out has been dizzying.
It wasn’t all that surprising that DeGeneres decided to leave. She was frequently uncomfortable during the live episodes (although she was edited very well during her Hollywood Week debut) and she said in her departure statement that she felt uncomfortable critiquing upcoming singers.
Indeed, she may have tipped her hand with the announcement that she was starting her own record label. That message — which was accompanied by the news that she’d signed 12-year-old YouTube sensation Greyson Chance as her first artist — crossed the transom on May 26, the same day that Lee DeWyze was handed the ‘Idol’ crown. It was somewhat curious timing — you’d think that she would have been completing her post-first-season victory lap that day, and not moving on to other musical ventures before the last bits of confetti had been cleaned off the Kodak Theatre’s floor.
It is slightly eyebrow-raising, however, that the rumors of forced departure are swirling around DioGuardi. While her presence on the panel was often annoying and self-aggrandizing (especially when the topic involved her bikini body and/or her crush on flaxen-haired guitarist Casey James), she was definitely a more helpful judge than Randy Jackson. Not only did she offer substantive critique more often than most of her fellow panelists during Season Nine, DioGuardi has worked with contemporary singers and actually been involved with songs that topped the chart in the past 10 years. (Sure, the season-eight coronation song “No Boundaries,” penned by DioGuardi, was a dud. But “Walk Away” is great!) Meanwhile, Jackson’s rote dishing out of “pitchy”s and “dawg”s might be less aggravating if the substance of his critiques made it seem like he’d listened to a record that wasn’t by Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey sometime during the last decade.
The identities of the two potential new judges are a bit surprising, to say the least. Sure, the hoary “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” by Tyler’s band Aerosmith is an ‘Idol’ staple, and rocker dudes have won the last three seasons of the show. But is Steven Tyler really that good at picking talent? And bringing in Jennifer Lopez to judge just seems like an ill-advised idea given that her musical career as of late has been, to put it kindly, tanking.
What’s especially troubling is that if these rumors are true, it would indicate that the new regime isn’t all that concerned with what rushing for celebrities to fill the new holes in the judges’ table might mean for the contestants. True, the talent pool during Season Nine was lackluster, but it might have been given more of a chance to shine if the judges had been more willing to put their egos on the back burner — if Ellen had critiqued instead of quipped, if Kara had kept her crush on Casey confined to the pages of her diary.
It’s not too much of a stretch to worry that encouraging celebrities to be “themselves” — to be, as thy are, famous people who the contestants should be lucky to hear from — will only serve to take the focus more off the contestants, and to fuel the sort of viewer apathy that has led to things like canceled tour dates and soft-landing albums. The strength of Simon Cowell, after all, was that he backed up his somewhat stinging critiques with a dose of record-industry knowhow — and he became famous on these shores because of the show, not the other way around. (Surely I wasn’t the only one who was surprised when the video love letters to him on last season’s finale reminded me of his relative schlubbiness during the earliest ‘Idol’ days.) If Tyler and Lopez can’t offer their commentary without schticky reminders that, yes, they are important famous people who rate their own tag pages on TMZ, where will that leave the contestants?
‘Idol,’ despite its still being one of the highest-rated shows in primetime, needs an adrenaline shot, and judging by the amount of breathless press these departures and rumored arrivals have received it’s at least gained back a little bit of the mojo it had seemed to lose when DeWyze huffed and puffed his way through his coronation rendition of “Beautiful Day.” But will this frenzy sustain itself until the show starts all over again next January?