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Four judges is one too many for ‘Idol’

Of all the changes announced for the eighth season of "American Idol," perhaps none was more hotly debated ahead of time than the addition of songwriter Kara DioGuardi as a fourth judge.

With three weeks of auditions now in the can, we've finally had the opportunity to view the wisdom or folly of that decision. And if the first nine hours of the new season are any indication, four judges is too damn many.

Not that "Idol" hasn't gone down this road before. Mentors like Burt Bacharach and Donna Summer used to sit in and offer their own responses on performance nights, while auditioners in previous seasons have occasionally found a surprise fourth sitting alongside Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.

But the mentor-judges had little incentive to offer genuine criticism, since appearing not-so-nice would hardly dovetail with selling the CDs they want to promote. And auditioners had to deal with the luck of the draw that would see one hopeful being smiled at by Olivia Newton-John while another ended up staring down Gene Simmons.

Adding another permanent judge eliminates those issues, but having a fourth in the audition room adds to the chaos of a situation where the judges are interested in doing little more than amusing themselves. Simon can and does pull Kara's (metaphorical) pigtails in a way that he would never do for, say, Kenny Loggins.

Then there's the issue of ties, never a problem with an odd number of judges. In the event of a 2-2 split, Simon reportedly has the final say on whether a singer moves on to Hollywood. And that gives him far more power than he's had in the past. Where it used to take two judges to override his vote, now it takes all three.

The four-judge format doesn't promise to improve in the Hollywood round. For a show already  chock-full of filler, increasing the blather seems like a no-win situation. Either the show will expand the judges' comments accordingly (thus cutting into singing time) or it won't (thus shortening each judge's response and making them even less useful). The contestants lose out one way or another.

She's held her own, and then someIf there's one judge too many, though, it's not necessarily Kara. There is, naturally, a distinct sense of new-kid syndrome, as would be expected by anyone joining the cast of any wildly successful show after seven seasons. Simon, for one, has treated her like a new toy, trying to figure out how best to push her buttons after having long since tired of needling Paula. And Kara's long-term prospects remain to be seen.

But mostly she's held her own, neither letting Simon run roughshod over her nor snapping peevishly like Paula in an frantic effort to fight back. Essentially, she's proven herself a smart, capable addition who can give as good as she gets.

That was never on better display than in her response to the infamous Bikini Girl, Katrina Darrell, whom Kara called out for banking on her body more than her voice. She knew the show would portray her as being threatened by the singer's looks, but she was also savvy enough to offer actual criticism of her singing while Randy and Simon simply giggled like horny schoolboys. And that's to say nothing of Kara's gutsiness in deciding to simply outsing Darrell at the judges' table.

There's a strong argument to be made that Kara's precisely the shot of energy that "Idol" needs. The problem's only the implementation, overstuffing a show already padded to the rafters. But while conventional wisdom suggests that she's there to keep Paula in line lest she be replaced outright, that overlooks the fact that Randy's clearly the most expendable judge.

Everyone on the panel has filled a specific music-industry niche: Simon is the businessman looking for marketability, Paula is the former pop star who could empathize with the contestants' experiences and Randy is the producer/musician behind the scenes.

Kara, meanwhile, brings a successful songwriting career to the table, with a hand in major hits by Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Ashlee Simpson and Pink, among others. She understands how music is actually made, she can speak to the technical aspects of singing and has connections with a wide array of artists who are actually relevant to today's pop charts. For which of the other three judges does that experience make her a potential replacement? Here's a hint: he says "dawg" and "a'ight" a lot.

Still, the fact remains that for the moment, four judges is excessive even by "Idol" standards. It's early yet, of course, and they could still settle into a rhythm that works better than what we've seen so far. But if not, then someone needs to join Brian Dunkleman in the Great "Idol" Dustbin. Randy might want to start looking over his shoulder.

More on Kara DioGuardi |"American Idol"

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.