Love her — or not — this much is true of Ellen DeGeneres' addition to "American Idol": Her presence seems to have forced the other judges to raise their game.
We're not talking about Simon, of course. He's the same slightly disaffected, sometimes mean and almost always dead-on commentator he's always been. He remains the creative center of "Idol, with or without Ellen.
But with Ellen on board — and Simon on the way out — judges Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi seem to have decided it's time to start trying harder.
(Also read: "Just How Bad Are This Season's 'Idol' Contestants?")
Rather than spout some variation of "dawg," "you did your thing" or "It just wasn't working for me," Jackson apparently woke up this season and realized it might be good idea to start showing off more of his music and industry know-how. His critiques are now often both insightful and on-target, even if he can't help relying on self-created cliches. (His latest? "What did you think, E?")
It's not that Jackson hadn't been trying in years past. But he always seemed stuck in the middle: He was neither the jerk (Cowell) or the superfan (Paula Abdul).
Now, however, he seems liberated to just say what he thinks, without worrying where his comments fit on the Simon-Paul axis.
DioGuardi, meanwhile, has also benefited big time from having one year under her belt.
While some skewered her last season, I've actually always kind of enjoyed DioGuardi as a panelist.
She was — and is — the only one on the panel actively making music as an artist these days. Last year alone, she helped pen nearly two dozen songs, including chart-worthy tunes such as Adam Lambert's "For Your Entertainment" and the addictive/annoying Cobra Starship tune "Hot Mess."
But this season, DioGuardi has actually emerged as a rival to Simon in terms of offering constructive criticism to contestants. She's suggested specific songs to sing and delivered detailed dissections of how and why a performance went off-track (or soared).
Some "Idol" fans seems to treat DioGuardi as an interloper, new money in the firmly entrenched "Idol" judge-ocracy. But with Paula departed and Cowell counting down 'til May, DioGuardi's comments are now, for my money, among the most interesting served up by any of the judges. And yes, that includes Simon.
So why give Ellen the credit for the Randy-Kara surges?
For one thing, the smoothness by which "Idol" has replaced Abdul with DeGeneres has demonstrated that "Idol" does not depend on one person at all (though some still might argue Simon is essential to the show's continued success). When you realize you're no longer indispensable, there's a big incentive to step things up.
The Ellen transition can be seen as a message to all judges — and the veteran Jackson, in particular — that anyone on the show is just one wrong contract demand away from getting the boot.
But Ellen has also helped by bringing her well-honed stand-up instincts to the show. She knows how to make up a quip on the fly, throwing out zingers on a second's notice. (She does need to remove, forever, the word "adorable" from her vocabulary.)
Abdul, by contrast, always seemed to be on Planet Paula when offering her critiques. Because they were often such rambling (if highly entertaining) hot messes, Randy and maybe even Kara no doubt felt they didn't have to say much to outdo Abdul.
While it's too soon to say whether Ellen will be a welcome addition to the "Idol" family, she's absolutely managed to make her fellow judges' critiques much more compelling viewing. That alone makes us happy she's on the show.