Once the announcement was officially made Wednesday (September 22) after months of rumors, the real debate about the new panel of judges on “American Idol” could begin.
In the most radical reboot in the show’s eight-year history, host Ryan Seacrest revealed the worst-kept secret in Hollywood: Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler would be joining the “AI” panel alongside sole remaining original judge Randy Jackson.
Typically, this kind of wholesale deck shuffling 10 seasons into a show’s run is a sign of desperation, a bandage to stop the ratings hemorrhaging or a last-ditch effort to recapture some elusive magic. Despite the fact that neither Lopez nor Tyler have any significant TV experience and both are past their creative zenith, Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers applauded the choices and held out hope.
“I think they’re both great choices,” Powers said shortly after Wednesday’s announcement. “Jennifer Lopez is someone I’ve advocated for for a long time, ever since she mentored on the show. She had a really great way with the contestants, and she’s the kind of celebrity — never super great at anything, but pretty good at a lot of things — who can really advise the contestants.”
With her experience as a performer, choreographer, fashion designer, actress and frequent subject of chatter in the celebrity press over her sometimes-daring sartorial choices, Powers said Lopez is well-equipped to offer “Idol” contestants advice on style, movement and elements of pop performance that haven’t traditionally been discussed on the show. In addition, she brings another intangible that might help the show’s sliding ratings: the ability to appeal to a Latin audience. “She could really open the show up to new viewers, and I think it will be good for pop in general to acknowledge that there are a lot of Latinos in music,” Powers said.
As for Tyler, 62, Powers said in addition to being one of rock’s iconic figures and a classic frontman, Tyler can also uniquely advise contestants on style and performance, thanks to his flashy wardrobe and motor-mouth persona. Plus, with “Idol” leaning toward rock in the past few years, thanks to finalists such as Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox and grunge-lite winners David Cook, Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze, Tyler might be the one to, as he promised, “bring some rock to this roller coaster.”
Following the departures of original superstar judge Simon Cowell, one-and-done funnywoman Ellen DeGeneres and two-season veteran Kara DioGuardi, rumors circulated about everyone from Elton John and Justin Timberlake to Harry Connick Jr., Usher, former judge Paula Abdul and returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe possibly taking seats at the table next to original castmember Jackson. The radical shake-up comes after a season in which DeGeneres struggled to fit into the panel, often appearing uncomfortable and falling flat with her signature comedic bits. It began with the news that Cowell would be leaving at season’s end to help launch an American version of his popular English reality singing show “The X Factor,” which will also air on Fox.
DioGuardi, who struggled with poor notices in her first year in 2008, began to hit a bit of a stride in 2009 but was let go with no explanation earlier this summer. Lythgoe had stated that he wanted to bring the panel back down to its original three-member configuration, fearing that the four-judge arrangement had begun to take the focus off the contestants.
Entertainment Weekly reporter and “Idol” expert Michael Slezak also thought the choices, while unconventional, just might work. “The reboot last season, at least on paper, was a good thing for ’Idol,’ ” Slezak said of the addition of DeGeneres. “But I don’t think a panel of Ellen, Randy and Kara was going to get people super excited for season 10.” And whether or not Tyler and Lopez turn out to be good choices, Slezak gave the show’s producers credit for taking a radical chance and playing offense instead of defense. “It’s them saying, ’Let’s try to do something different going into season 10,’ instead of saying, ’Let’s sit on our hands and hope that we’re #9 next season and #18 the year after that.’ ”
That said, Slezak suspects you have to be a TV star to be a good judge and, love him or hate him, Cowell was undoubtedly an electric TV personality because he was honest, funny and credible. “I don’t know if Tyler or J.Lo are good at it,” he said. “Because it’s a specific kind of TV where you have to be really good under the gun and get out of that celebrity comfort zone of wanting people to like you, and you have to be very quick.”
While both new judges have logged countless hours in front of cameras and audiences, Slezak said coming up with pithy 30-second comments in the moment in front of 5,000 screaming (or booing) audience members is a very specific talent and, so far, nobody knows if either new judge has what it takes to do it.
“Idol” continued to be the nation’s highest-rated show for the seventh year in a row as season nine ended in May, but like any program facing a decade on the air, its ratings have begun to dip and its audience has gradually aged, a prospect that makes it a less attractive target for advertisers, who covet a young adult audience for their products.
The most important unknown for Slezak and Powers, though, is the pivotal question of who will replace Cowell as the “mean” judge, a slot every good reality-TV competition seems to need in order to succeed. “I think J.Lo’s most likely to be the mean judge, because I don’t think Tyler is coherent enough,” Slezak predicted. If not, though, it’s possible season-long guest mentor, Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine, could serve as the go-to baddie who has to break the harsh news to the contestants.
Powers is holding out for Jackson to finally break out of his nine-season funk of empty go-to phrases but said we might just have to wait until the early weeks of the season to see who has the goods to tell it like it is. “If you’re too nice, it’s boring TV,” she said.
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