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updated 11/17/2008 9:43:54 AM ET 2008-11-17T14:43:54
COMMENTARY

A tiny little show called "American Idol" affected television in profound ways, but one of its most significant — and pernicious — influences on other competition shows is that its template has been widely copied.

Although more than a few shows have borrowed heavily from its format, what most competition shows steal from "Idol" is the panel of three judges offering critiques to the contestants' faces.

Far too many shows just think they can sit three people behind a table, call them judges, and then give them a few minutes to make allegedly witty comments. But that rarely works as well as it does on "Idol."

At the worst, an assembled panel can be disastrous and drag down the whole show (hello, "Celebrity Circus"). In the best scenarios, however, the judges are the highlight of every episode.

The greatest judges are a mix of personality and expertise, and likewise, the best panels draw from different types of judges. Not all types work on all shows, nor are all types ideal, even though they can be found on more than one show.

The Truth-Telling Mean Judge with an Accent
Any discussion of judges must start with one man: Simon Cowell.  It was his brutal honesty and abrasive commentary, heavily featured in commercials, that drew audiences to "American Idol" when no one knew what the show was. While his shtick has gotten a little tired, he's still consistently honest, and others have followed his lead.

"Dancing with the Stars" has its Cowell in grumpy Len Goodman, who also judges the UK version, "Strictly Come Dancing." Other judges in Simon's mold include Piers Morgan on "America's Got Talent" (which is produced by Simon Cowell) and Nigel Lythgoe on "So You Think You Can Dance." Besides producing "Idol" for its first seven seasons, Lythgoe previously judged the UK's "Popstars," where he was known as "Nasty Nigel." Clearly, both British and U.S. audiences had the same reaction to his attitude.

The Smart, Informed, and Condescending Judge
Ideally, a reality show judge is an expert who's exceptionally knowledgeable about the show's subject. There are too few judges like this, but those who exist stand out as some of the best judges on TV.

"Project Runway" panelist Michael Kors and "Top Chef" head judge Tom Colicchio are the best models, even they have entirely different personalities. Kors is witty and incredibly descriptive, praising or dismissing contestants' work with quick one-liners, while Colicchio is serious and grumpy even when he's smiling.

The third judge on "Dancing with the Stars," Carrie Ann Inaba, also fills this role; she knows her stuff and sticks to it. Just ask any couple Inaba penalized for lifting a foot off the floor a few millimeters during a dance in which such a move is unacceptable.

Some judges are professionals who are also insiders, like the Food Network executive panelists on "The Next Food Network Star," or the band members on CBS' "Rock Star" who were essentially selecting a future bandmate; they bring even more weight to the judging table.

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The Star Power Judge
Some people sit in judgment of reality show contestants simply because they bring names to the panel — even though they do not know how to judge. Thankfully, there are fewer of these than one might imagine, and even when they're present, they tend to graduate into other judging categories rather than just emit star power all the time.

Paula Abdul filled that seat on "American Idol" its first season, and is now more well-known for being on that show than for her singing, while David Hasselhoff fills that seat on the "America's Got Talent" panel. Even smaller cable network series try to get a name to draw viewers and credibility; designer and former "Trading Spaces" cast member Vern Yip, for example, is the only HGTV "Design Star" judge who's close to a household name.

The Alternately Unhinged and In-Control Judge
Paula Abdul may be best known for her wacked-out moments, but she's not always nutty. More often than not — and in fact, for nearly all of "American Idol 7" — she was in control. For Paula, that means offering comments that are rarely critical and instead babbling on with typically meaningless platitudes instead of providing feedback. Still, the fun of Paula as a judge is that she may say something ridiculous, or bawl, or stand up and dance and clap in her weird way, at any second.

These occasionally unhinged judges are the most fun because they're unpredictable, at least until their unpredictability becomes predictable. Janice Dickinson on "America's Next Top Model" fits into this mold, although her crazy moments as a judge on "Top Model" (she judged the first four seasons) involved going off on the girls rather than being supportive.

"So You Think You Can Dance" judge Mary Murphy absolutely belongs in this category, as she alternates between deafening shrieks and smart critiques, although Bruno Tonioli on "Dancing with the Stars" is perhaps the best current example. While he's unquestionably an expert and gives reasoned, well-informed critiques of the dances, he's also out of control. That's generally verbal: His comments are frequently bawdy or suggestive, with not much left to the imagination, and it's his unpredictability — and, in some cases, his Italian-accented unintelligibility — that gives "Dancing" judging segments their life.

The Judge Who Seems Embarrassed to be on a Panel with Crazier Judges
Sometimes judges don't quite seem to know why they're on a reality show but go along with it anyway, like they're hoping it's all a bad dream.

Nigel Barker, photographer and "America's Next Top Model" judge, always seems dignified and composed (unlike his fellow judges), and remarkably has never once crawled under the table to hide. He had a similarly embarrassed-seeming colleague in 1960s modeling legend Twiggy during her time on the show.

Randy Jackson arguably fits here, even though he's evolved into a one-note joke of a judge himself even as he's tried to distance himself from Simon's cruelty and Paula's inanity.

The Third Wheel Judge
Even the best judges can occasionally find themselves overshadowed temporarily by the others on the panel, but for some judges, that's a way of life. They're neither great nor terrible, straitlaced nor crazy. They're not necessarily bad at their jobs, they just tend to fade into the background.

On "Top Chef," Gail Simmons tries hard and generally offers relevant feedback, but she's no Tom Colicchio, and when guest judges such as the outrageous Anthony Bourdain show up, she gets lost in the shuffle. Heidi Klum is that way on "Project Runway," too; her feedback isn't bad, but doesn't quite have the same punch of Michael Kors' or Nina Garcia's, and the editors tend to use her less than the other judges.

A subset of this group is the "May Be Great at their Jobs but Suck at Being on TV Judge," and Bravo has a number of these as a result of their repeated cloning of "Project Runway." The network has a number of of judging opportunities but not many qualified candidates, which explains "Make Me a Supermodel"'s entire panel — including Tyson Beckford and Niki Taylor -- who are all very flat and dull.

Tyra Banks
Let's face it: Tyra Banks gets her own category because she simultaneously fits into nearly every other category and none of them. She has first-hand knowledge, dedication to her show, apparent passion for her models' careers and lives, and the ability to go completely nuts at any second. (She also has a great partner in runway coach J. Alexander, who's also known as Miss J, and they play off each other like a great comic duo.)

The best example of Banks' split judging personality came during cycle four of "Top Model," when she lectured exiting model Tiffany — and then when Tiffany talked back, took about a half-second to go from a conversational tone to screaming ("I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you!"). It was frightening and exceptional television. She seems to be getting somewhat bored during recent seasons, but she still stands as a model judge.

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