Hope and Change

‘American Idol’ May Have a Brilliant Plan to Bring Contestants Back as Judges

There’s hope after all! Reports surface that Fox is planning to stock next season’s judging table with alums. Quick, someone call Kelly (and Kellie).

05.22.13 4:47 PM ET

Just over a week before the confetti rained down on Candice Glover, reports leaked of an American Idol bloodbath—all four judges, including stalwart dawg Randy Jackson, were being booted from the panel—and we argued that it’s in the best interest of the aging reality show and the misguided music stars it courts not to hire celebrity judges in the future. It seems now, at least in part, producers are listening.

The Idol off-season rumor mill is already whipping furiously, with Vulture reporting that Fox is giving “serious consideration” to the idea of inviting former Idol contestants and winners to next season’s judges tables. Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson already reportedly have been approached, with Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert also under serious consideration.

Responding to the relentless media narrative harping over how—owed to falling ratings, a tired format, and frustrated fans—Idol is “dead,” Fox head honcho Kevin Reilly told reporters last week that “everything was on the table” as far as what would happen when the Idol team pressed reset and retooled the show for next season. If this still very speculative report is indicative of what he plans to bring to the table next season, then those Idol­-obituary-writing critics are in for a big scare. Idol might be back from the dead.

When we spoke to longtime (and obsessive) Idol critics last week about the show’s biggest problems and how to fix them, each flagged the recent obsession over spending big money on big music stars who in turn demand big amounts of screen time as its, well, biggest issue. Mariah Carey rambles nonsensically for four minutes after a contestant who performs for 90 seconds, a rather asinine mode of operation for a TV show ostensibly about singing.

The fix these critics overwhelmingly rooted for was scrapping the idea of celebrity judges and refocusing the show on the contestants it hopes to turn into pop stars. Idol’s relevancy, after all, was built on plucking the Kelly Clarksons, Jennifer Hudsons, Carrie Underwoods, and the Phillip Phillps out of obscurity—not on giving Nicki Minaj a bigger platform for her crazy than she already has.

It’s a rather brilliant compromise of those two notions, then, to bring back the contestants who weathered Idol’s golden years, who have been through the ringer and know what makes a good Idol performance, who fielded the kinds of constructive critiques from Simon and—dare we say it?—Paula that we’re now nostalgic for. They’re recognizable personalities and, yes, a few are even “big stars.”

And yes, for someone like Clay Aiken, joining the Idol judging panel would likely be motivated by the desire for a career boost as doing so was for someone like Jennifer Lopez or Carey. But at the very least, there’s the hope for the kinds of insightful musical critiques that the show has been woefully missing in recent seasons, which have been dominated by fashion pointers and meaningless platitudes.

There’s at least four months before Idol producers make a final decision on this—this year’s panel wasn’t officially announced until last September—and there a million ways for talks to fall through and opportunities for executives to change their minds. But assuming this idea does move forward, which Idol alums would be excellent picks?

Kelly Clarkson

This is a no-brainer. What more perfect way to trumpet the show’s continued relevance into the ears of the naysayers preparing its deathbed than bringing back the small-town singer who propelled the show to pop-culture phenomenon status and 12 years later continues to win Grammys and dominate the industry? Plus, she’s clearly game to participate. She judged the ABC competition Duets last summer and has appeared as a guest mentor on The Voice, delivering smart musical insights with that charming Southern twang that’s impossible not to giggle over.

Melinda Doolittle

The Season 6 contestant remains one of the most technically masterful singers the show has ever featured. (After this performance, no one should ever be allowed to sing “My Funny Valentine” again on that show.) Plus, in the years since her Idol run she’s become an expert on the show, teaming with TV Line’s Idol guru Michael Slezak for a webseries analyzing the competition in recent seasons. She’s not just one of Idol’s best talents, she’s become one of its most knowledgeable experts.

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Adam Lambert

Lambert’s name has popped up several times through the years as Idol execs cast its rotating panel of celebrity judges, and each time the news was met with giddy excitement from critics eager for his refreshing candor as well as a dash of his over-the-top flamboyance. More than that, though, after years of judges boxing contestants into supposedly-marketable genres and constrictive wheelhouses from their very first performances (god forbid this season’s Angie Miller even thought about standing up from a piano bench), it would be a nice change of pace to have a judge encourage the singers to, just as he did on his season to great success, be themselves and let their freak flags fly.

Kellie Pickler

The obvious choice to fill the country slot on the panel would be Carrie Underwood. But the better one is Kellie Pickler. It was abundantly clear during her season on Idol but even more so during her Mirror Ball-winning run that just ended on Dancing With the Stars, but Pickler bubbles over with personality. While it’s easy to mistake her over-excitedness for ditziness (and that was the running joke while she was on Idol) her DWTS run especially proved she actually has a quite astute sense of self and is actually remarkably articulate.

So your move, Fox. Sign ‘em up!