Taking the place of a beloved character on a long-running TV show is never easy. But on Tuesday night, talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres appeared to easily slide into the memorial Paula Abdul seat on "American Idol" without disrupting the show's flow, pleasantly surprising many of the "Idol" faithful who spent months fretting over how the Emmy-winning comedian would fit into the mix.
After questioning how DeGeneres would do once the show went live, one of the leading "Idol" bloggers, MJ Santilli, who runs mjsbigblog.com, had high marks for the debut on the first night of Hollywood Week. "Ellen's perfect bon mots from tonight's show were plucked from hours and hours of footage," she wrote. "Obviously, [the producers] want to set her in the best light. However, if she can live up to her best sound bites, she's going to be great."
Santilli praised DeGeneres' knack for zeroing in on singers' specific strengths and weaknesses and offering "constructive critiques that are both humor-laced, and pithy. ... Ellen's long experience in front of the camera is definitely helping her."
Veteran "Idol" watcher Michael Slezak of Entertainment Weekly opined, "Ellen DeGeneres may not have years of experience in the music industry, but who cares? Her ability to sit still, be quiet and ... actually pay attention to what's happening on the stage in front of her could set an exciting new precedent for 'American Idol' 's generally frustrating judges' panel. Yes indeed, the show is actually about discovering the next generation of music superstars, not watching four nimrods at a table drawing mustaches on each other, misstating pertinent facts about music history and finding new and annoying ways to make the phrase 'you gave it 100 percent' their own."
Despite his early fears that DeGeneres would be more focused on tossing out punch lines than critiques, Slezak said she filled the Abdul chair with "a level of dignity and purpose that it had never before experienced."
Over at the Los Angeles Times, critic Ann Powers was less enthusiastic, writing, "Hollywood Week's big news turned out a fizzle Tuesday night — not because Ellen DeGeneres was bad, or offensive, or much of anything, as a judge, but because she seamlessly fit into the patter and often meaningless 'critique' at the judges' table, the way a bottle of San Pellegrino fits in on a Beverly Hills brunch table. Quietly bubbly and refreshing enough, DeGeneres said nothing of consequence."
Though she was lukewarm, Powers predicted we'll be thankful for DeGeneres when the show goes live. "Her calm demeanor and deadpan wit have already exerted a calming influence on Randy and Kara, if not Simon (who seemed disconnected tonight), and the judges'-panel schtick that had turned into a bunch of tics last year might actually regain its rhythm," she said.
Not so on the fence was Dave Della Terza, founder of "Idol" spoiler site www.votefortheworst.com. "The first Hollywood episode was a bit underwhelming, because most of it was taken up by Ellen DeGeneres trying to be funny and failing miserably," he wrote in one of his kinder comments. "At least Kara DioGuardi can finally give away the title of Most Contrived Idol Judge."
MTV's own "Idol" expert, Jim Cantiello, also overcame his initial fears about DeGeneres, admitting, "Although I initially thought she was a terrible choice (based on her spotlight-hogging star power, her conflict of interest and one astoundingly painful guest judge appearance on 'So You Think You Can Dance'), I can now say that Ellen DeGeneres is exactly what's been missing from the judge's table since the fourth season: passion."
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