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02.09.10

Ellen's First Night

A surprisingly harsh Ellen DeGeneres made her American Idol debut Tuesday—Richard Rushfield reads the tea leaves about how her presence will shake up the mercurial judging panel.

Tuesday marked the debut of American Idol's new judge, Ellen DeGeneres, which officially signified the loss of another, Paula Abdul. And then there is the pending departure of the biggest one of them all— Idol's iconic star, Simon Cowell—at the end of this season. Who will not be replaced by Howard Stern—that much we know.

In other words, the telenovela that is American Idol continues.

So how did DeGeneres appear to fit into the soapy narrative upon her inaugural?

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Well, she definitely held her own on the stage with the judging legends. Unlike Kara DioGuardi's entry last year, there was nothing tentative about Ellen's first night in the spotlight. She was vocal, funny, opinionated and willing to mess around. A few fresh jokes can go a long way on a show where the standard gag material has been showing its age. (Watch the video of her only extended big moment).

View our coverage of American Idol Season 9
Richard Rushfield: No Idol for Howard Stern
In Tuesday's episode, Idol took us to Hollywood Week, where young singers seemingly destined for glory during the auditions have their dreams snuffed out by the score. While we had only a few glimpses of Ellen, we can begin to form a clear sense of what kind of judge she will be: or more to the point, what kind of judge she won't be. When Ellen was named to fill the Paula chair, given her background as Idol's most prominent fan, it was presumed by many that she would take over as the show's "nice judge," handing out lollipops to the kids after Cowell steals their lunch money. But based on Tuesday's episode, Ellen is willing to be as harsh, if not as Simon, then at least as biting as Kara or Randy. Children of Season 9: expect no safe harbor this year.

And what of the returning members of the panel? Throughout the audition weeks, quitting seemed to have invigorated Idol's centerpiece star, Cowell. In contrast to his performance on past seasons' audition tours, when he was often visibly bored, petulant and miserable, Cowell actually seemed to be having fun in this year's stops, enjoying his banter with contestants and the guest judges with the twinkle restored to his mischievous eye.

Of course, the audition episodes were shot before he made his historic decision to leave the show in order to start an American version of X Factor. He signed that fateful contract on January 11, hours before showing up for the first day of Hollywood Week—DeGeneres' first day of work—and the evidence based on Tuesday's episode is that his mood was, more or less, black as the bottom of the deepest well on the darkest night of the century. Which is odd: Hollywood Week is the killing fields of American Idol, the point when having raised the hopes of 200 young contestants to a deafening wail, the executioners come in and must do the up-close work of eliminating 3/4 of them, a task that unlike the trudge of the auditions, usually brings out the cheeriest in Cowell.

But on the first night of Hollywood Week, having come straight from his announcement at a Fox press conference, Cowell rose to this task not as the Merry Reaper of yore, but as a dull, plodding beast, its gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, joylessly stomping out the dreams of one after another, recalling his most bored moments of season's past.

Which brings up the larger question: Will spending the season as a lame duck on the Idol panel inspire Cowell to go out with a bang and give the show his all in his final days, or, with one-and-a-half feet out the door, will his ennui rise up and make his final months on the set a hard slog?

Tugging at him will be the other big change at the desk. In previous seasons, Cowell's barbed critiques functioned as part of a buddy team act with the now absent Abdul, who would roll her eyes and flirtatiously punch his arm in response to his brutality, softening the meanness with a playful comeuppance.

With Ellen DeGeneres stationed to his right, Simon Cowell faces something he never had before on the panel—a judge with a following (and an ego) to rival his own.

The act worked because the audience could see the genuine affection between Cowell and Abdul. But with Ellen stationed to his right, Cowell faces something he never had before on the panel—a judge with a following (and an ego) to rival his own. Ellen is certainly not likely to play the part of Cowell's ditsy, flummoxed sidekick.

So the question is: Can Cowell develop a new routine and a new chemistry with one of comparable stature? Does he have the will to try? Or will he become an island at the edge of the table?

Based on one night's evidence the answer is incomplete and slightly ominous—because we barely saw Simon and Ellen even acknowledging each other, as he sat shrouded in his black cloud.

But this is only one night. And a night that was taped on one of the most momentous days of Cowell's career. The Cowell of yesteryear has plenty of time to return in all his plumage.

As for the retuning Kara, whose fate and place on the panel seemed to teeter perpetually on the bubble last year, Season 9 thus far has seen a much more confident performance from Judge DioGuardi. Last season, as the new girl, she often struggled to find her place, veering from Paula-ish sympathy to claws-unsheathed viciousness. This season she seems to be happily erring toward the latter posture, and having a lot more fun doing it.

But of all the panel, it is the Dawg who has truly reached his fork in the road. Next year, Randy Jackson will be the senior judge on the panel, the sole surviving member of the original panel: After long years in the back seat, could it be that Jackson is ready to take the wheel, becoming one of history's great late bloomers like Albert Einstein or Harry Truman? Or will he simply ascend to the President Pro Tempore slot—dignified, venerable, respected but ultimately powerless?

This is a transitional season for Idol—the show-to-be will not truly take shape until Cowell is gone and his replacement, whoever that is, takes his place. But this year can do a great deal to either help or damage that transition. If Ellen, Kara and Randy can rise to build the foundation for a new Idol judiciary, perhaps even stronger than what it has been of late, this year could mark a turning point that would seem to most shows unthinkable: Rejuvenating a titan in its ninth season on Earth.

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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.