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Abdul’s exit could rejuvenate or kill ‘Idol’

For all her faults, it's difficult to envision "American Idol" without Paula Abdul in the chair next to Simon Cowell. By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: contributor

Paula Abdul is leaving "American Idol" after eight seasons of damaging the show's credibility while simultaneously helping its popularity, a fascinating accomplishment.

Her departure, which she announced Tuesday night via Twitter, is the best worst thing that could happen to America's most-popular television show. It will leave the show forever changed, either sending it quickly toward its inevitable end in a few seasons, or jump-starting a new era in which it refocuses on music instead of personality.

Back in 2002, when "American Idol" debuted, Paula Abdul was brought on board for her 1980s pop-star background, to bring the program both credibility and name recognition.

Today, seven years later, she's defined a reality competition judging archetype, the supportive mentor, although no one has come close to offering her brand of emotional and genuine but also odd concern for contestants.

Because of that, she's now known more as the crazy "American Idol" judge than the "Straight Up" or MC Skat Kat-accompanied dancing pop star. Even the American Idol Experience attraction at Walt Disney World in Orlando subtly mocks her weirdness rather while acknowledging her status as an idol herself; the warm-up comedian has the audience clap like Paula, fingers not touching.

Over eight seasons on “Idol,” Paula Abdul was certainly a strong presence, but what stands out are her off moments. For everything she lacks as a judge, Abdul has been fantastic at drawing attention, both positive and negative. She has consistently generated more press and conversation about the show than she has offered coherent, helpful comments, which is her actual job.

Slurs, scandals and a media frenzyLast year, Abdul judged a song that hadn't been performed, apparently relying on notes from her time at the contestants' dress rehearsal, an embarrassing screw-up that fueled conspiracy theories the show is rigged. Previously, she slurred her way through pre-season interviews, and then sometimes through judging, prompting Ryan Seacrest to joke repeatedly about an intoxicated judge and leading to an ongoing series of denials that she was on something, whether that was prescription drugs or something else.

In 2005, contestant Corey Clark claimed Abdul had a sexual relationship with him and at least one other male contestant. The resulting Fox investigation found Clark's claims "not been substantiated by any corroborating evidence of witnesses" but also led the network to create "an enhanced non-fraternization policy."

All of that — and so, so much more — generated hours and pages of media coverage, attention any television show would dream of, and attention that helped both increase and sustain the show’s popularity. Whatever Abdul did filled blog posts and office conversations the next day.

In “Idol’s” boring stretches, Paula provided the entertainment the show desperately needed. But she also brought negative attention, distracting from the supposed family-friendly nature of the series, never mind its stated mission of being a search for an idol, not a prime-time joke.

‘I wanted to squish you’When she wasn't engaged in playtime with Simon and her comments were actually coherent, they were often bizarre, like when she cried while telling David Archuleta in 2008, "I wanted to squish you, squeeze your head off, and dangle you from my rear-view mirror."

Paula's nightly comments for the singers tended to ignore their actual performances, particularly when those performances were terrible.

Fans and apologists of Paula's described her as being supportive or "nurturing," a word Paula herself used in her Twitter post announcing she was leaving the show. A contrast to Simon Cowell's caustic comments certainly was certainly welcome, but soon became repetitive and not at all helpful ("you look great tonight" was a favorite).

Yet that's also what viewers expected from her — and, it seems, from any female judge — so much so that Kara DioGuardi's addition to the panel for season eight was controversial, leading to uproar from some viewers who were used to Paula's brand of judging, or couldn't imagine a female judge commenting on more than clothes and personality. One thing is undeniable: DioGuardi's presence caused Paula and the other judges to up their game. DioGuardi "infused American Idol with a new energy last year," as Fox executive Mike Darnell said in a statement announcing DioGuardi will return for season nine.

Whether "American Idol" will improve or decline without Paula Abdul remains to be seen, and depends upon how much you appreciated or disliked her contributions. Unquestionably, though, the show will forever be changed.

For all her faults, it's difficult to envision "American Idol" without her in the chair next to Simon Cowell. She is as much a part of the show as anything else, and neither DioGuardi nor anyone else will be replacing her because Paula Abdul is, if nothing else, impossibly and unapologetically unique.

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