Television

Is A Cowell-Free 'Idol' Just An Appalling Cruise-Ship Singer Doing Bad Karaoke?

An aspiring contestant at the Chicago American Idol auditions holds up a sign.

hide captionThis Chicago Idol contender is there for Simon. How about everybody else?

Craig Blankenhorn/Fox

So Simon Cowell is leaving American Idol. Unless new judge Ellen DeGeneres decides to pick up the slack, there will probably be a whole lot less "You're gay!"/"No, you're gay!" banter with Ryan Seacrest. (And if there isn't, it's likely to take on a dramatically different tenor.) More substantially, Cowell's departure is likely to have major reverberations for Idol, the ninth season of which starts tonight on Fox.

Going on without your star, after the jump.

We'll get a very small hint of what those reverberations might be on tonight's season premiere without Paula Abdul. Granted, the show's been in the midst of a quiet identity crisis for years now; those keeping count will note that next season will see the fourth different judging panel in as many years. Disregarding season-one cohost Brian Dunkleman (and everyone does), however, the current season marks the first time the show will continue without one of its core on-screen players.

But while Abdul certainly had her fans, Cowell is the star. When detractors point to Idol's cruelty and mockery towards the delusional and untalented as the reason the show's destroying America, he's what they're thinking of.

And unlike Abdul's departure, the loss of Cowell threatens to upend what has been thus far a delicate balance of tone. We as a culture (generally speaking, of course... I am not necessarily talking about YOU) have more or less given him license to be as big a jerk as he likes, which isn't a mantle that just anybody can pick up. People are put off by the idea of Cowell; it's only Cowell himself, with his peculiar charm and charisma, who makes it work as someone we want to watch on television.

That makes just about any attempt to find someone new to step into Cowell's role as the mean, "funny" judge doomed to failure. And it's not a mantle that the remaining judges can easily pick up. DeGeneres simply doesn't have it in her (or, if she does, it would come at great cost to her public persona). Kara DioGuardi, for her faults, was careful in her inaugural season to couch her criticism in the most constructive manner possible, lashing out only if a singer attacked her personally for her initial remarks.

As for Randy Jackson, the head judge apparent certainly has it in him to be mean like Cowell. (Witness him chuckling in the faces of singers he considers subpar.) What he lacks, to a tremendous degree, is Cowell's caustic articulateness. Unlike Cowell's, Jackson's meanness is no fun.

Then there's Cowell himself, who will remain on television with the upcoming The X Factor. His continuing presence on Fox should not only provide audiences will all of their Cowell-related needs, it would serve as a reminder of just how not-Cowell anyone unlucky enough to be cast in the Cowell role would really be.

Does that mean that the loss of Cowell could be the deathknell that some have been looking forward to ever since Idol began? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly the show will continue on without him for at least a few years. It's true that Idol's predecessor, Britain's Pop Idol, ceased production when Cowell left after two seasons. Fox is unlikely to take a similar approach with American Idol. There's just too much money to be made and, with nine seasons under its belt, too much history to pull the plug right away. Even if the show has peaked, there's enough momentum for it to coast for at least a few more seasons before the audience settles to more earthbound America's Got Talent numbers or even abandons ship completely.

On the other hand, the shakeup has the potential to rejuvenate Idol. After all, Cowell's boredom has been palpable going back at least two seasons. There have been times when he might as well have been trying to see if he could name all of the British Prime Ministers in reverse order in his head for all the enthusiasm he was expending on the contestants. Having a panel of judges who are clearly engaged in their jobs could go a long way toward easing the transition, to say nothing of eliminating much of the time-consuming nonsense that Cowell tends to provoke just to stay awake.

The question is whether Idol's producers are willing to admit that Cowell is unique personality and not simply a type that can be easily replaced. Either way, it seems reasonably clear that the shakeup means that the current season will be the last we see of the show as it currently exists. What remains to be seen is whether it's the start of a new chapter for Idol or the beginning of the end.

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