“American Idol’s” addition of a fourth judge last season felt more like a third wheel, but at least newcomer Kara DioGuardi made the most of a potentially rocky ride. With an industry insider’s take on performances, she delivered fair reviews that neither needlessly degraded contestants nor heaped heavy-handed praise upon them.
That was enough to make the singer-songwriter (and producer, A&R exec and publisher, for that matter) stand out against “Idol’s” old guard of Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and the always out-there Paula Abdul. Shoehorned among those fan favorites, DioGuardi fared well and, certain bikini incidents notwithstanding, even managed to hold her own when faced with Cowell’s harshest criticism.
But that was then.
Now in her sophomore year on the talent panel, DioGuardi’s pulled a personality switcheroo. It’s no surprise the shakeup that added Ellen DeGeneres and left Abdul in the lurch was bound to have some impact on the group dynamic. But while Jackson and Cowell remain mostly the same, DioGuardi seems to have taken her new spot in Abdul’s old seat to heart.
What else could explain the rash of wannabe-Abdul antics coming from the judges’ table this season? From giggling girlish behavior to cougar come-ons to misty-eyed melodrama, DioGuardi’s fully channeling her inner Abdul and unfortunately, it’s really awkward.
Why cry? One of the worst Adbul-esque offenses of the season so far came when crooner-contestant Michael Lynche performed Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” an apt ode to a man’s thoughts and fears as his partner approaches childbirth.
The soulful rendition of the song worked for Lynche, whose wife gave birth while he climbed the initial “Idol” ranks, and had Big Mike shed a tear or two while singing it, anyone would have understood. Not so easy to understand was the overly emotional, sobbing response it earned from DioGuardi, which veered straight into “What? Huh? Really?” territory.
Back in the day, Abdul mastered the weepy reaction shot. After listening to a heartfelt ballad, an especially touching vocal tribute or even an average effort in which a male singer looked straight into her eyes, she could turn on the waterworks in a completely believable way. Not that it wasn’t strange. The routine was straight up weird, and it often inspired a perfect “What the...?” face from Cowell, but still, those were real teardrops.
That’s something that can’t be said of DioGuardi’s breakdown. Just moments after Lynche ended his number with one heck of a glory note, DioGuardi gave him her feedback through a cracking voice, sniffles, the sound of sobs and ... not one visible tear. It’s as though she went through all the Paula-perfect motions, but didn’t actually feel any of them.
Dry eye or not, she didn’t give up. By the time it was Cowell’s turn to ooh and ahh over Lynche’s performance, DioGuardi cuddled close to her not-at-all-cuddly panel partner for comfort as she continued to “cry.”
Cougar crush Of course, the Abdul-inspired action first became obvious much earlier in the season. In fact, the first sign that DioGuardi took over more than the ex-panelist’s chair came during the Denver auditions. That’s where DioGuardi met a fresh-faced and soon-to-be-shirtless Casey James. It’s also where she lost any credibility she had the previous season when she basically accused Cowell of using a body part other than his ear when he selected female favorites for the competition.
To put it bluntly, DioGuardi swooned, flirted and even demanded a little show of skin from the blond-haired, blue-eyed hopeful. Not since Abdul first set eyes on Justin Guarini on “Idol 1.0” has a judge put such blatantly creepy moves on one contestant. Well, except for all the other times Abdul did it. (See the playful flirting with Constantine Maroulis, the googly eyes made at several contestants, and whatever the heck that was with Corey Clark).
The point remains, DioGuardi’s leg-kicking, schoolgirl crush seemed to come out of nowhere and undeniably follows a certain set of footsteps.
Getting cozy with Cowell After all, it’s not just James who’s caught DioGuardi’s eye. If ever there was a move straight out of Abdul’s playbook, it’s DioGuardi’s sudden interest in all things Cowell. Swaying his way, resting a woozy head on his shoulder — that’s Abdul all the way. Or at least, it was.
Now, showing Cowell a little too much affection is DioGuardi’s new panel pastime. Whether she’s leaning in for a quick giggle, sharing a knowing glance or touching when no touching is required (and it’s never required on “Idol”), she can’t seem to get enough of it, and to make matters worse, neither can he. Ugh.
Fair or no, for some reason it just felt natural and playful when Cowell and Abdul went from perma-feuding to occasional flirting. But the same behavior loses something in DioGuardi’s Abdul redux routine. Rather than illustrating moments of tenderness between otherwise frosty relations, it just comes off as an icky interaction between that married lady and that recently engaged guy.
That’s the problem with the new and not-so-improved DioGuardi. She doesn’t quite hit the mark. She’s channeling Abdul and ignoring her own approach to panel politics. For now, viewers still get glimpses of DioGuardi: Original Recipe, with her sometimes spot-on reviews and rational demeanor, but more and more they’re watching her try to fill a mold that wasn’t made for her.
DioGuardi needs to leave the Abdul act to the one who invented it (and for whom it isn’t an act).
Kara schmara! Ree Hines misses the good old predictable “Idol” days, when Simon grumped, Randy dawged and Paula trailblazed her own wacky way. Reminisce with her on Twitter at twitter.com/ReeHines.