American Idol Review: Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler Bet on Nice

Early buzz is positive for Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, who debuted as judges Wednesday. Richard Rushfield, author of American Idol: The Untold Story, on why the show let Simon Cowell take the mean role with him when he quit.

The era of the meanie is over.

So American Idol declared on the first night of its new season Wednesday—the first night of its post-Cowell era. The show that for all intents invented the mean judge as cultural truth teller is turning its back on its child, or more to the point, sending him off to college. In its place, Idol wishes to lead us to a world where our arbiters are supportive, understanding and constructive.

The question is whether American television, reared for the past decade on the demolition derby style of reality shows is ready to embrace “nurturing” as a cultural paradigm.

Throughout the past decade, the audition’s episodes were built around Idol’s sharpest elbows; vignettes in which the deluded (sometimes charmingly deluded, sometimes terrifyingly) came face to face with their unforgiving destiny, an unforgiving grim faced ogre who dispatched them back to oblivion with the least forgiving of mal mots.

Since the announcement that the new judicial panel would be composed of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, and general pop icon Jennifer Lopez joining returning judge Randy Jackson, the question has been discussed endlessly: who would be the new Simon? And whom would be Paula? Well the answer to both those questions seems to be: no one. Instead we were treated to a jovial hands on schmooze fest. A surprisingly engaged and energetic Tyler yukked it up with his fellow jurists like they were six martinis into a Rotary Club luncheon, dispatching the untalented gently but firmly; the damage done in the destroying of dreams kept to a minimum and rarely tipping into the gratuitous territory where Cowell often seemed so at home.

Why would Idol, at the top of the ratings still, turn its back on the formula that had brought it so far? The answer may lie in the mists of time, at the dawn of Idol history.

The mean judge roll was not in fact Simon Cowell’s original invention but existed before Idol, the creation of the man who now presides as American Idol’s Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe. Back in 2000, the year before Idol’s progenitor, Pop Idol, launched in the UK, Lythgoe helmed another singing contest entitled Popstars, in which he also starred on air as one of the judges. (Cowell, had in fact, been offered the chair but turned it down). On Popstars, Lythgoe created the character of Nasty Nigel, as he was dubbed by the British press, the no-holds-barred, metaphor-slinging, put down artist who told the no talent what was what. The character became a sensation, with posters for the show depicting hopefuls pleading with him for mercy.

When Idol reached the U.S., it had the good fortune to arrive at a moment, post 9/11, when there was a hunger for supposed, plain, straightforward truth after what was seen as the weasley evasions of the Lewinsky era.

When Pop Idol was born, however, and Lythgoe made the leap to the new show, he returned to his previous incarnation behind the cameras and trained another to fill his shoes. That man was record executive Simon Cowell, whom after a tentative start, struggling to get comfortable as the master of venom, took to the role with a blood vengeance, hurling insults with a nuclear powered conviction that made them sound like wisdom out of scriptures.

American Idol Live ChatWhen the show reached the U.S., it had the good fortune to arrive at a moment, post 9/11, when there was a hunger for supposed, plain, straightforward truth after what was seen as the weasley evasions of the Lewinsky era. Idol and Cowell fit that yearning as if it had been invented for them.

Fast forward seven years and the mean judge persona has succeed so well it has not just made Cowell the biggest star on television, but spawned a generation of imitators. Mean judges were to be found on every hour of primetime television. At the same time, the man who created the role seemed to have mixed feelings about his child. Stepping out from Idol’s shadow, Lythgoe created a new show So You Think You Can Dance which in many ways became the anti-Idol. A show devoted to the craft of dancing, rather than bestowing the dream of stardom, SYTYCD’s jurists acted more like mentors than sentencing body. Lythgoe emphasized that everyone who came through the studio would leave with constructive advice they could use to improve their performances. In case, anyone missed the comparison he was making, he was all too willing to point out how much he felt the Idol judges had become predictable put-down machines, rolling out eye-rolling zingers that did nothing to guide the contestants.

It didn’t help that personal relations between Lythgoe and his one time protégé had become strained by this point, a case of neither wanting to follow the lead of the other, eventually leading to Lythgoe’s departure from the show after Season Seven. In his time away from the Idol set, his criticism of Cowell only increased, as did his passionate advocacy of dance and of an uplifting, inspirational model of reality program. One sensed that Lythgoe suffered from ambivalent feelings about what he had unleashed and was working hard to bring entertainment in the opposite direction.

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Now, two years later, he is back at the Idol helm, summoned home after his old sparring partner’s departure and Idol’s very shaky, near trainwreck ninth season, and from the looks of things, he is setting about rethinking Idol along the lines he’s crafted on SYTYCD. The betting, it would seem, is that with the mean judge model now a decade old and more widely imitated than McDonald’s hamburgers, it has played itself out and the public is ready for something different, perhaps even, niceness.

Another part of this strategy is that the Uber Mean Judge has not actually left the airwaves, but will be returning if not as Idol’s direct competitor, certainly as its challenger for the zeitgeist when the X Factor comes to Fox this fall. Perhaps rather than go head to head in a battle of mean, Idol sees its chance in zagging to the left?

But in fact, the X Factor’s Cowell is not quite the ogre Cowell America has come to love/hate. At least he appears in the UK version of the show, X Factor’s Cowell tends to be enormously more supportive, at times even gushy towards the performers, saving the bulk of his venom for his fellow judges.

And so it may come this fall that the airwaves are swept clean of the means. But how will this new era be received? A survey of the web response to the first episode in the hours after its airing must offer some solace to the Idol camp. The early buzz on Tyler and Lopez was overwhelmingly positive, with surprisingly few seeming wistful for what may soon be the lost art of the put down.

Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost. His new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, goes behind the scenes of the most popular TV show of the decade.