by Linda Holmes
It wasn't a particularly flashy night for Ellen DeGeneres as she started her new job as an American Idol judge, and that's probably a good thing.
The show is now in the Hollywood rounds, which involve a lot of groups of contestants being brought on stage to perform, after which some are asked to step forward and either the front row or the back row is sent home. (Very A Chorus Line, with less singing about puberty.) Aside from one moment when she teased a group of four who would all eventually advance to the next round anyway, having them step forward, then back again, then over to the side, Ellen played it pretty straight, not really wisecracking with any more vigor than anyone else.
The fear about putting a comedian on the panel is that she'll be doing shtick all the time, and while Idol is corny, there isn't time for the judges to be doing routines, for the most part. They need to be reacting with some spontaneity, and she did fine in that regard.
Soft-heartedness and the three standout performances, after the jump.
The other concern about DeGeneres was that she might be too soft-hearted, much like Paula Abdul was, responding to bad performances by complimenting what people were wearing. But she didn't really fall into that trap, either -- she was seen more than once delivering critiques along the lines of, "I didn't like that at all." It's possible that she's overcompensating and will get more mushy-hearted as things progress, but she doesn't seem to suffer from the Abdulian malady in which the patient believes that it's not right to be straightforwardly critical without propping up the performer by stressing that you would never suggest anyone give up his or her dream.
There were actually a few very good performances last night from contestants who seem like awfully good long-term bets, and as long as they're still up, we'll show you some clips. One was Andrew Garcia, who did an acoustic-guitar version of Abdul's "Straight Up."
The other two were Crystal Bowersox and Didi Benami, who were in the same little group and were both quite stunning in very different ways. Shockingly, Benami managed to be good even singing a song by judge Kara DioGuardi, so it's rather tantalizing to think what she would do with better material.
When one of those three gets booted in favor of some inexplicably popular 17-year-old boy who performs "We Are The World," I'm going to be really angry.
All in all, a surprisingly auspicious night of Hollywood auditions. Tonight is my traditionally favorite night of any Idol season: group performances. Group Performances Night sometimes brings bizarre outbreaks of semi-genius, and it more and more frequently reveals creativity that will pay off later (as we discussed at this time last year, eventual winner Kris Allen, who was very low-profile at this stage, was part of one of two really good group performances).
Next year at this time, fans may be fiercely missing Simon Cowell, but so far, the show is weathering the loss of Abdul pretty well.