When Ellen DeGeneres was picked to be Paula Abdul’s replacement on “American Idol” less than a year ago, it seemed like an inspired choice.
Ellen was a huge fan of the show who was a natural fit to take over as the “Nice Judge” and expand the show’s reach into the demographics of her hit daytime talk show. And as a brilliant comic with a ready supply of one-liners, she’d have the tenacity to throw elbows with Simon Cowell in a more entertaining way than Paula could manage with her rambling commentary.
But it didn’t work out quite as planned, and Ellen’s decision to exit the show after just one season is the best resolution for everyone. She’s better off returning to her status as one of the program’s biggest fans. Her exit gives “Idol” a chance to move forward with someone better, and the fans don’t have to watch her struggle to be noticed in the crowded battle for airtime.
The simple fact is that apart from her talk show, where the rejected contestants got a second chance to perform and discuss their exit after the Wednesday elimination episodes, Ellen didn’t contribute much of anything to the program. She was never very critical regardless of how poorly someone performed, but more to the point, she wasn’t even entertaining. Pushed to the background most of the time, she quickly went from being a potential game changer to a bland, forgettable figure — the Paige Miles of the judges. (Forget Paige all ready? She finished 11th last season.)
Blame it on Ellen’s discomfort at having to criticize contestants she genuinely liked, which is the reason she gives for leaving. Blame it on the lack of chemistry between her and the other judges, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi. But mostly, blame it on the fact that she never seemed to be confident enough to display the wit and creativity she shows in her other creative endeavors.
As a big fan of everything else she does, that was the biggest disappointment for me. I thought she’d be the judge who could balance out Simon’s sarcasm with some cutting retorts that put him in his place — and Lord knows, Simon’s ego could have used the hit.
Instead, she seemed eager to fit in and largely unwilling to ruffle feathers. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to a great dynamic with the other three judges. She acted more like a fan than a peer, stepping on few toes and failing to carve out a niche for herself.
That seemed to get worse over time as she repeated some of the same jokes that didn’t even get a laugh the first time around (“I’m going to boo myself,” for starters) and mimicked the language of the other judges. When she started to use “pitchy” in her comments, that was probably a sign that she was struggling to think of things to say.
As a result, she was the fourth wheel in a three-person party, with Randy, Kara and Simon doing their own thing and just sort of tolerating the interloper. It often seemed like she was waiting for the other judges and host Ryan Seacrest to set her up to shine, but if that was the case, it was a fruitless hope. Nobody on “American Idol” is very good at voluntarily ceding the spotlight.
Contrast that to how Kara acted when she joined the show two seasons ago. Her job was actually more challenging, as she was tacked onto a three-person team that, apart from the occasional guest judge, had worked alone since “Idol” began. But she crashed the party, forced her way into the conversation, and wound up carving out a role for herself in the crowded panel.
Of course, Kara also found it easier to be critical, which generates a reaction in a way that tepid praise never does. The big reason that Simon was so popular in his nine seasons as an “Idol” judge was that he was viciously entertaining. His memorable comments are the ones where he compared faltering hopefuls to cats falling out of windows, not the statements that ended with “well done.”
It’s probably a credit to Ellen that she was unwilling to be cruel to the young men and women who put everything they had on the line each week, sometimes having to sing songs well out of their comfort zones, the way that the other three on the panel can do with relish. That is the nicer and more fair way of responding, but it sure is dull.
Fans and executives could have forgiven a lot of shortcomings if Ellen had been more entertaining (indeed, they did so with Paula for years). But she wasn’t, and she wasn’t happy or comfortable with herself in her attempts, so it’s best for everyone that this experiment ended after just one season.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter .