In public school systems across the country, the phrase “senior slump” refers to the tendency of college-bound 12th-graders to mail in the final few months of their high-school careers. With the next phase of their life already set and the acceptance letters received, there’s nothing left to do but mark the days on the calendar until prom and graduation. Some of you are undoubtedly in that situation right now, reading this instead of doing your homework.
If so, you’re in good company. Simon Cowell is effectively doing the same thing.
The “American Idol” judge has already announced that he’ll be moving on after this season to develop another reality TV program, a U.S. version of “The X Factor.” All that’s standing between him and the rest of his life are 16 contestants and a couple of more months trying to make small talk with Ryan Seacrest without leaping out of his chair and beating the host with a microphone.
So it’s understandable that he’d rather hang out with his best girl, “American Idol” makeup artist Mezghan Hussainy, instead of spending boring time in class listening to poor song choices, dodgy choreography and hopefuls making the same foolish mistakes that he saw others make six or seven years ago. But for the sake of the audience, it would be great if he could do a better job making it seem like he is more engaged.
Simon’s status as a short-timer adds a new dynamic to the show and contributes to what has thus far been an uneven performance from the podium. Combine that with the switch from Paula Abdul to Ellen DeGeneres, and season nine continues to be a work in progress.
Taken by herself, Ellen is an upgrade over Paula. Like Paula, she is generally supportive, and she has the benefit of not acting like she is contractually obligated to say only nice things. Unlike Paula, her comments are funny and generally on point, though every time she calls a contestant “pitchy,” an angel loses its wings.
But her addition has definitely altered the chemistry on the stand, mostly because she and Simon are so distant that they might as well be in different rooms. Simon tends to sit there in aloof disinterest whenever anyone else is talking unless Kara DioGuardi whacks him on the arm, but that is especially true for the newest member of the panel.
The relationship between Paula and Simon, dysfunctional and disturbing though it was, was at least a relationship. Ellen might as well be a robot, like Kathy Ireland at the Oscars, for all the chemistry between them. Simon looks like he’s thinking there’s no point in making friends with the new girl when they’ll be on different campuses next year anyway.
That is most noticeable in Simon’s body language. Watch him sometimes when Ellen has a comment — like her suggestions to Andrew Garcia during the first semifinal round — and he’s staring offscreen with his arms folded like a guy who’s just been told by Mom and Dad that he can’t borrow the car. That doesn’t bode well for the weeks ahead.
As far as what he has to say to the contestants, it’s mostly the same old, same old. Simon is a smart guy, and he’ll always have an answer when called upon. Nor has he been any meaner than usual — or if he is, it’s hard to tell, since many semifinalists this season deserve a good scolding on a weekly basis.
It’s no surprise that he can do this mostly on autopilot in his ninth season. Pull his string, and he can come up with the patented “Idol” Simile Generator, comparing hopefuls to buskers/lounge singers/theme-park acts at any random setting and country. He’s like a human “American Idol” Mad Lib.
What he has lacked this year is patience. Apart from a couple of surprises, like his supportive comments to Alex Lambert last week, his attitude toward those who are struggling seems to be dismissive. Improve, don’t improve, whatever. Those 19 Entertainment checks cash either way.
It’s also interesting to note that it’s in Simon’s final year with the show that the contestants are less easy to fit into the traditional pop lineup. Crystal Bowersox, Lilly Scott and Siobhan Magnus are the three early favorites among the women, and three who Simon likes. Each would take the show in a different direction if they won. In previous years each could expect to get frequent concerns as to whether they were commercial enough, and that may yet happen, but as of now, the coffeehouse vibe is in full effect at the Kodak Theatre.
Among that, the addition of Ellen to the judges’ podium and Simon sitting around like he’s in detention, this has been an … interesting beginning to season nine. It may not go down as the best year in “Idol” history and probably won’t be the worst, but it is shaping up to be the strangest.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/craigberman.