In her first two appearances on the country's top-rated television show, the show's new fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, has already improved "American Idol."
Besides fitting in with the other judges as if she'd been there for seven previous seasons and offering commentary that's both relevant and useful, the songwriter's presence elevated the other judges' performances, their critiques and their general attitude. She hasn't transformed the show into something unrecognizable, but adding her to the panel has indeed made it better.
Early in the first episode, Ryan Seacrest said Kara was "the new judge, determined to prove herself." That didn't take long, nor was she reduced to the unfortunate sexist "catfighting" woman that Ryan suggested she would be.
With Kara, "American Idol" actually isn't all that different, and that's what's most remarkable. When the show has invited guest judges to sit in on the auditions during past seasons, it was usually awkward, particularly when those guests weren't willing to be critical, or laugh at the idiots, or say anything of substance.
Rarely did a guest judge seem like they belonged with the other judges; instead, it felt like that person, regardless of their stature or experience, was doing the "Idol" judging equivalent of sitting in a high chair and smearing oatmeal on their face.
Kara DioGuardi is not a guest at the kids' table. She plays naturally off the other judges, and isn't afraid to challenge them, nor does she just shyly agree with the others.
As a judge, Kara (CARE-a, not CAR-a, as the panel discussed during the first episode) is instead a combination of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson: doing her own version of what each of them does best.
Her work with actual pop stars and respect in the music industry is similar to Randy Jackson's, but more relevant and current, and while that experience doesn't exactly seep into her commentary, it clearly informs her thinking.
Kara is also supportive without delivering meaningless platitudes (like Paula Abdul), nor does she babble nonsensical and inane comments (also Paula) or just repeat the same phrases (like Randy, and sometimes Paula and Simon).
But she can also be honest. She's not as acerbic or cruel as Simon, but also doesn't avoid actual criticism — or praise. When the judges let Von Smith through to Hollywood in Kansas City, Randy just said a version of his "you can sing, dawg," and Paula simply agreed.
But Kara said "you can take a lot of risks that other singers can't" and commented on his "chops." It's not exactly a detailed analysis, but it's more substantive than what we've come to expect — particularly from Paula and Randy.
Infamous Bikini Girl sing-offThat was most apparent when she got into a sing-off with the infamous bikini girl; Kara was the stand-out during the whole exchange, despite Paula's protests and Randy and Simon's comments. After Katrina Darrell sang, and Simon and Randy pretended to like her singing just because she was wearing a bikini, Kara said, "Okay, honestly — and this isn't because you're a beautiful girl, and I don't want this to come across, 'Oh, she was angry, because she's beautiful,' because it's not, but the thing is..." And then Kara started singing, dueling with Katrina, proving she can hold her own.
Her attitude and personality is also a welcome addition to the panel, although it's not as if Donald Trump was suddenly sitting there. Her vocabulary is also edgier and wittier.
When Michael Castro, Jason Castro's brother came in, called him "cocky" and said, "I think you're a ballsy dude, and I like that. ... You have this, 'I have a secret' vibe."
Compare that to Randy's "I say yes," Paula's "yes, yes, yes," and Simon's "I can't really get anything from your voice."
To be fair, Paula and Randy could have made comments that landed on the cutting-room floor, but those comments would have remained in the show if they'd been as interesting as Kara's. Consistently, the new fourth judge provides feedback that the editors keep in the show, and there's no greater endorsement than that.
For sure, not everything she has said is noteworthy or significant. "Something about you I like," she told one contestant. "You put a lot of heart into that." Other times, she just agrees: "100 percent."
But mostly, she brings an edge and attitude that fits but also brings the panel to a new level. Frequently, she was a better judge than the other three who have been doing this for seven seasons, but her presence also helped dislodge them from their rut.
Last year, for "American Idol 7," the judges mostly trudged through the auditions as if they were as bored as we were. This year, they're all perkier and livelier; Simon's insults seem fresher, Paula is much more awake than usual, and Randy, well, he's still there, too.
Kara sits in the middle, smiling nearly non-stop, even — or especially — when the singers are just ridiculous. She looks like she's having fun, and so, now, do the others.
Whether she's sarcastically calling Simon a "party pooper" or being self-deprecating, singing or just rolling her eyes, Kara DioGuardi has brought something to the "American Idol" judges table that it desperately needed. Hopefully, that will continue through the rest of the auditions and beyond.