American Idol 2011: An Appraisal. Or, J.Lo Can You Go?

idoljudges American Idol 2011: An Appraisal. Or, J.Lo Can You Go?This season of “American Idol,” its tenth, began as it needed to, with an introduction to its new judges, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez (who join game-hardened veteran Randy Jackson). But did it have to be so lengthy? Minute after minute was devoted to a montage of TV-news gossip about potential new judges from last summer: bandied-about names like Justin Timberlake and Diddy did little more than begin to diminish Tyler and Lopez. The show itself did the rest.

“This isn’t our story—it’s yours!” onscreen titles instructed. After all, any one of us could be a contestant, a Carrie Underwood or Clay Aiken. But the real story belonged, as it did in the good old Simon-Paula days and the bad old Ellen-Kara days, to the judges. Tyler’s and Lopez’s particularly elevated profiles made the show seem alternately like a witty “Saturday Night Live” skit (Tyler singing along with, and over, contestants) and comedy of a less aware, sadder sort. Lopez “and Marc” had watched a repeat contestant at home, on the couch, in past years. Lopez loved her then. Why couldn’t she have been a judge at the time? the contestant asked. “I was busy!”

Less busy now: Lopez has essentially given up the acting game and her current single rivals 2010 Idol Lee DeWyze’s entire career in terms of irrelevance. (The song “Idol” played over her re-introduction to America? Not 2011′s “On the Floor” but 2001′s “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.”) 

Judging-panel alumni Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Kara DioGuardi all have shows airing or in development, and Ellen DeGeneres is still working. Perhaps this can be a springboard to something new for Lopez, or at least a platform for her brand of all-about-me benevolence. (Certainly she hopes it won’t be a terminus—the mere fact that she’s recording music suggests she’s keeping an eye on the escape hatch.)

That said, all of “Idol’s” former judges (save, notoriously, DeGeneres), added some value. Neither Lopez nor Tyler gave “Idol” much of a boost, besides an air of ring-kissing. The contestants—those whom the show is “about,” remember—all cried, or talked up Lopez’s and Tyler’s vaunted attractiveness. A Snookian Jersey princess with jet-black hair (“Idol” will take its cultural signifiers where it can find them) called Lopez her idol; shockingly, she aced the audition, and likely the finalists will be those who learn to play the same flatterers’ game.

Though some predicted the show would take on a new air of seriousness, “Idol” will always have its weirdos. This installment featured a Sinatra-singing Boy Scout and showtune-belting mall worker. In the former case, the judges weren’t nearly mean enough. They can’t be Cowell, nor, it seems will they try.

But in the case of the latter, the judges seemed to reveal what the show was really about: Lopez made a great, disingenuous show of agonizing over whether the “Thoroughly Modern Millie” number was right for “Idol” before voting up; Tyler practically winked at the camera when applying his metric, “unbridled enthusiasm.” The note was hardly helpful, but it showed that in casting contestants as well as judges, Idol now aims for sheer verve over precision.

When the Broadway baby gets to Hollywood, the next stage of the competition, Lopez and Tyler will be there, hustling to see who will be America’s next top judge, as will Jackson, who’s stuck to the same shtick for ten years. So far, it seems to be a chemistry-free panel, with each judge in his or her orbit. Jackson, at least, knows what he’s good at, and doesn’t deviate. Maybe instead of Simon’s or Paula’s, his is the model Lopez and Tyler ought to follow.