Rebooting the Judges

Let’s face it – this past cycle of American Idol was a train wreck. With a nearly unwatchable judging panel and a group of guys that seemed to be chosen simply so that a female would take the trophy (aka: manufactured drama), the show certainly showed its age. Now it seems the producers of the show are once again hoping to revive a show that has been getting buried by another, and some would say better, singing competition, The Voice. Yeah… where have I heard that before? (Answer: Every season since Simon left! Nothing much has changed, though.) And though kicking out Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick does help bring fresh blood in behind the scenes, for everything the show seems to be doing right, there seems to be a decision that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

For the second year in a row, the biggest change is to the DNA of the judging panel, which is basically the blood that drives the show. (Sorry singers, but it is; it has been for some time.) A judging panel (especially one that actually chooses the contestants) can make or break a show. Without good, honest and unbiased judges, all of the contestants are simply wanna-be starlets and showmen with nothing but emotional, pull-at-the-heartstrings back stories, which to be honest, are simply there to help manipulate the viewer; it’s an aspect of any competition show that I could do without. When American Idol first started, Simon Cowell made headlines by being brutally honest with the singers and never holding back his opinion, a quality that eventually morphed into a bit of a sideshow as his schtick became more show than substance. (He’s gone on to be much softer on the X Factor, where he will be holding shop this season with a trio of girls… which on it’s face is something that begs to be sampled at the very least.) Even before he left, the judging on American Idol became more a love fest than a true critique of what the performers actually did on stage (but nowhere near as love infested as the “coaches” on The Voice… the saccharine quality of their remarks are sweeter than a gallon of frosting and impossible to sit through, especially when it was clear that a performer failed). Occasionally, the judges would give some critique that actually made sense and might help the singer, but the days of actually helping a contestant grow seem to be completely lost in all competition series… except perhaps on the SyFy competition, Face Off. The judges on that show aren’t just critical, they can be downright brutal when they don’t like something, or feel something is underwhelming. But all of their comments come from a place of respect for the artists, as they know that each one has the potential and the talent to have a great career (Ve Neill even hired season one winner Conor McCullagh with her to do makeup on The Hunger Games!) . Honest, constructive criticism that points out the strengths, explains in clear, concise points what was wrong, and gives advice for how to improve, is the only way an artist, and people in general, learn and grow. In my opinion, all judging panels (especially any panel calling themselves coaches) should definitely take a cue from the professionals on Face Off. Judging from recent news, American Idol seems to be looking to do just that.

One of the mentors that stopped by to offer advice to the singers last season was Harry Connick, Jr., and in just that one appearance (although I do remember him mentoring before, and he was just as helpful back then), I said that he should be a judge for the very reasons I stated above. Over the last few months, as the producers searched high and low for a replacement (will.i.am and Dr. Luke both backing out before final contracts could be signed for one reason or another), never once was Harry Connick Jr. even mentioned… not that I saw anyway. Suddenly, though, it was announced this weekend that there is a deal in the works and he’s very close to signing (if not signed already). If it’s true, American Idol finally did something right. I believe he will bring just enough criticism, honest feedback and genuine fun to the table alongside returning judge Keith Urban (who, with Harry sitting beside him, might become a bit more critical as well, but remain sweet and airy at the same time) and Jennifer Lopez (who will return after a year off and probably be the voice of support among the boys) that has been missing from the panel since Simon left.

On the downside, just as this news came out, it was also reported that Randy Jackson will replace in-house mentor, Jimmy Iovine, whose critiques were the only one’s I ever wanted to listen to (hoping he would wise up and officially become a judge). For me, this seems like a huge step down, but I could be wrong. Randy is a producer himself, so stepping out from behind the judges table to help mold the singers might be exactly what he needs to freshen up his tune and give the singers what they need to grow and flourish in the industry.

Whether any of this (or any of the other possible changes the new producers make) helps the show is going to be a debate until it actually premieres, but if the show is at least able to hold onto its audience from last season, the producers can effectively call it a win. Until then, it’s going to be interesting to see what else comes out to hype up the revamped season, one that right now could be a fresh stroke of ingenuity or an unmitigated disaster. Either way, it’s certainly something I’ll be checking out come January.

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