Reality singing competition judges panels tend to have two kinds of stars on them: big-name divas/divos who are brought in to goose ratings even as they try to jump-start their own careers and music industry lifers who bring wizened knowledge and sage advice based on their years in the trenches.
The former get changed like so many frilly scarves, while the latter tend to hang around because they provide a solid anchor to the sometimes flighty, air-filled platitudes of their bold-named colleagues.
Which is why I was surprised, and disappointed, to see on Thursday that Epic Records boss L.A. Reid announced he's leaving "X Factor" after two seasons. Forget for a moment that jumping ship the week before the finale is bad reality show form. The real bummer is that Reid was one of the true bright spots on a show that is still struggling to find its focus.
I've written before about how much I love the pomp and spectacle "X Factor," and how "The Voice" and "American Idol" clearly borrowed a page from the first "Factor" season and upped their flashpot and graphics game during performances this year.
But what they have never really been able to find is someone like Reid, who not only brings a star charisma and charm, but also a deep well of expertise and a pedigree creating and nurturing stars (Pink, Justin Bieber, Usher, Avril Lavigne). The singer/mentors on "The Voice" are all solid and have unique personalities, but each is also clearly there in part (or in whole) to further their career.
The stunt casting of Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey on the upcoming season of "Idol" is the latest in the rotating lazy Susan of big names brought in to prop the show up as it holds on to its wan version of Reid, chief barker Randy Jackson. We will tune in to see if the two divas can get along or if they'll scratch each other's eyes out on national TV, but probably not as much to find the next superstar.
Yes, Reid was likely hoping to lard his Epic Records roster with some fresh talent from the show, but given the dismal success rate of reality singing contestants on the charts he couldn't really have thought he was going to find the next Bieber or Rihanna.
L.A. will be missed because he not only played the game by jokingly jousting with the other judges about their critiques of his singers, but also because he gave real talk and made concrete, executable suggestions and tips.
And considering his naked disappointment at drawing the short straw with the over 25s this year (which was both shocking and refreshing for its honesty), Reid turned his lemons into potential hard lemonade by bringing asphalt laying cowboy Tate Stevens to the cusp of victory. In a season that was supposed to inject fresh energy and excitement into the show, Reid was the anchor that kept the focus on the talent without trying to draw it back his way.
Blank-stare Britney Spears was a bust, never giving good TV, despite taking home a massive paycheck. Demi Lovato was charming, but in the end, like Britney, mostly knew only how to turn her contestants into ghostly imitations of herself. And "Factor" boss Simon Cowell just seemed more dyspeptic and distracted than ever this year. It's unclear if Spears, or Lovato, will return in 2013, but given the huge investment and paltry ratings return, my guess is it's a no go.
I'll miss Reid not because he was the most dynamic judge on reality TV, or because he had the best quips (though his frequent harmony disses on Fifth Harmony were kind of great), or because of his snappy, snippy repartee with Cowell.
I'll miss him because he was real, which despite the genre's name, is an incredibly rare thing these days.