Critic's Notebook

Judging the ‘American Idol’ judges

“American Idol’’ shake-ups have left viewers debating the judges’ personalities. From left: Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson. “American Idol’’ shake-ups have left viewers debating the judges’ personalities. From left: Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson. (Michael Becker/Fox via AP)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 23, 2010

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The most fun part of “American Idol’’ has got to be the prominence of the judges and our strong identification with them. Yes, I also enjoy rooting for my favorite singers (go Siobhan, go Crystal), as I picture them riding in a parade of glory down the boulevard of broken dreams. Overnight successes, rags-to-riches stories — they are irresistible and distinctly American vicarious fantasies. But we do so like to sit in judgment, don’t we?

Through “American Idol,’’ many viewers have become more aware of the empowerment of sitting in the judge’s seat, of making both frank, Simon Cowell-like appraisals and supportive, gushy, Paula Abdul-like pronouncements. So it’s no surprise that so many “American Idol’’ viewers, myself included, have recently spent a whole lot of time judging not only the contestants, but the judges.

The shake-ups — the absence of Abdul, the addition of Ellen DeGeneres, the forthcoming departure of Cowell — have got people reconsidering the bench and the personalities on it. Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, Cowell, and DeGeneres — are they a supreme court, or a supremely awful court? The debate has been passionate.

The biggest surprise for me has been DioGuardi. Last season, she seemed preoccupied with the intra-panel relationships and her place in them. This season, she has been remarkably on point, focused, and articulate during her comments to the performers. She almost physically throws herself into her moments of criticism, her body leaning forward, her eye contact with the singer unblinking. I don’t always agree with her, but I admire her commitment to fairness and the way she has the language to back up her opinions with specifics. Oddly, I find her sometimes vain persona grating — and yet I listen closely to her every word. Being a fair judge is not about always being liked.

DeGeneres is eminently likable, on the other hand, but her judgments have no weight. Her takes on the performers seem irrelevant, unfounded, and a waste of time in a show that already kills too much time manufacturing drama and cutting to commercials. When the cameras zoom in on her, she looks like a startled raccoon and says something unengaging and positive like, “What’s not to love about that?’’ Viewers who’ve already watched eight seasons of “American Idol’’ could probably come up with more incisive, informed comments. DeGeneres appears to be opting to fill the Abdul “you-look-gorgeous-up-there’’ role, but she’s far less convincing as an unconditional love bucket.

As the season has progressed, DeGeneres has been able to squeeze her humor in. Last week after Didi Benami sang “Play With Fire,’’ for instance, she said, “You made the word ‘fire’ two syllables, which I thought was gr—eat.’’ She asked Aaron Kelly, “Are you trying to do your hair like me?’’ A number of times she has joked about how, as a lesbian, she may be immune to some of the male sexual energy. And that humor makes her easier to watch, since she’s in her comfort zone; but it comes at the expense of the performer. I don’t mean that her jokes are nasty, because they aren’t. But her one-liners have little to do with the anxious person standing alone waiting on the stage.

In his last season on the show, Cowell is starting to sound like Jackson, in terms of repeating himself. Jackson has been doing his thing, being real, getting down on pitchiness, since day one, and we know he’s going to choose one of his familiar lines every time he opens his mouth. He’s like a pull-string talking doll with three or four comments. Now Cowell seems to have only a handful of judgments in his arsenal, with “You need to have a moment’’ being this season’s favorite way of urging a standout performance. He’s still unwaveringly honest, and that’s important on a show meant to both encourage and discourage young singers. But he does project a lame-duck attitude of only half caring. DioGuardi seems to be in the process of taking over his role this season as the judge to please.

If I were an “American Idol’’ contestant, having just sung a song and submitted myself to millions of critics, I would be looking to DioGuardi for the most authentic, un-self-indulgent judgments right now. I would want her to tweet about me — which is essentially what the “Idol’’ judges, with their quickie comments, are doing. In this age, when opinion-making is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, from blogs to Web forums to Twitter and cable talking-head news shows, you could do a lot worse.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit