Who would have thought a year ago that Mary Murphy would be more irreplaceable than Simon Cowell?
When last summer began, Fox’s “American Idol” was answering questions about how it could possibly stay relevant without Cowell, its most popular and polarizing figure. Critics and fans alike wondered if anyone would find reason to watch if not to listen to the acerbic Brit tear down dreams, and thought that nobody could fill his shoes.
Meanwhile, though many “So You Think You Can Dance” fans were disappointed that Murphy wasn’t returning to season seven of the Fox hit, the addition of Adam Shankman and Mia Michaels as permanent judges added some star power. Murphy’s exit was sad, but it was not greeted with the apocalyptic hysteria that Cowell’s departure was.
Soon enough, Nigel Lythgoe found that Simon was more replaceable than thought. In his return to “Idol” as an executive producer, he brought in the buzz-worthy duo of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez and turned the show’s emphasis from snark and criticism to support and good cheer. Meanwhile, he went in the opposite direction for “SYTYCD,” implying that the decision to bump Murphy was a mistake by bringing her back for season eight and removing the Shankman-Michaels duo.
The hot tamale train is back
From her first appearance in the premiere this season, Murphy made the show a must-watch again. Her exuberance is contagious, and while some may find it over-the-top, it serves a critical purpose: Because she cares so much and so noticeably, she helps make the viewers care as well.
Murphy is also the rare judge who can offer tough love. She clearly projects as if she’s rooting for each dancer to do well, but if they don’t, she’s not going to put the J.Lo Spin of Positivity to make the performance sound awesome anyway. That credibility sets her apart from the judges on other reality shows who seem allergic to criticism even when warranted.
“So You Think You Can Dance” made some other changes for this season, going back to what worked before and abandoning some of the changes from a year ago. But the biggest one by far was bringing Murphy back, and as a result, the show is much more pleasant to watch.
And whether because of the year’s break or some better editing, she seems to have fit in seamlessly and is even a little more understated than in the past.
Undoing a mistake
It was never clear what prompted the decision to replace Murphy in the first place. Possibly Lythgoe was told by his doctor to find another partner because his eardrums were one shriek away from rupturing. Maybe Shankman offered him a key role in his upcoming projects or autographed memorabilia from his “Hairspray” sets. Or maybe there were personality conflicts, or focus group problems, or some other reason for jettisoning her.
And to be fair, Murphy isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of fans of the show who got sick of the patented screams and were looking forward to a quieter year. Shankman has a lot of star power, and Michaels has choreographed some of the most memorable routines in the show’s seven-season run. Justifying the decision in the Fox board room would not have been difficult.
The problem was that going with Shankman and Michaels as permanent judges greatly affected the show’s likability, a big deal since “SYTYCD” is a lot more dependent on positive vibes than other reality programs.
You can dislike the “Idol” judges and still appreciate the singing because most viewers recognize the songs. You can hate everyone in the “Big Brother” house by the second week, but still stay hooked because it’s interesting to watch the alliances form and disintegrate in the house. And it’s fun to hate every one of the “Real Housewives” or the flawed suitors on “The Bachelorette” and still find the shows watchable because of the trainwreck possibilities.
If the judges on “SYTYCD” don’t resonate, viewers wind up either hating the panel or not appreciating the dancers. Moreover, the show has less margin for error in this regard because Lythgoe himself is always cranky. It helps him to have someone with him on the panel who looks like they aren’t being subjected to torture by being there.
That did not happen last year. Michaels in particular always seemed to be dour, focusing more on what she’d like to see the dancers do and how she would have choreographed things than she was on each performance. Shankman had his good weeks and his bad. He worked much better in smaller doses as a guest judge in previous seasons. As a result, it was easy to watch an DVR’d episode last season in 15 or 20 minutes by simply fast-forwarding to the top few routines and then skipping the commentary.
But with Murphy’s return, the show’s premiere episode this season saw its ratings rise 7 percent from last year’s, and it was the most watched opening episode in the last four years.
Sometimes, it seems, the TV audience doesn’t appreciate someone until they are gone, and have once again tuned in to watch Murphy, a good sign for a rebound performance for the show.
Craig Berman is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter .