‘American Idol’: Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler have star power, but can they replace Simon?

Senior Television Writer
09.22.10 20 Comments

Before I get to analyzing the completely anti-climactic news that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez have been announced as new judges for the post-Simon Cowell era of “American Idol,” something needs to be said:

Randy Jackson is the last original “Idol” judge standing.

Who among you in the show’s glory years would have expected Randy to outlast Simon, or Paula, or even Ellen? Kara, sure. Dunkleman, absolutely. But with the show blowing up the judges’ panel anyway in the wake of Simon quitting to do “X Factor” and Ellen realizing she was terrible at it, it’s kinda staggering that the producers elected to keep Randy around, even for the sake of continuity. The guy has never added anything to the show, and now he’ll get to remind you of how much less interesting he was than all the other people who left. (Annoying as Kara could be, at least she occasionally had an interesting insight, and it was also fun to see her insecurity about being new and unpopular get in the way of the point she was trying to make.)

And since Randy won’t have much to offer but memories of past pitchiness, working it out and faces being sung off, do Tyler and Lopez have what it takes to help “Idol” survive without Simon?

Not seeing it, dawg. Sorry.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. Lopez might very well do a better job of filling the Paula slot than Ellen ever did. Paula’s value wasn’t in the advice she had for the contestants, but the unintentional comedy she brought early and often. You wanted to see what inane thing she would say next, and how long it would take her to say it, and how much Simon would make fun of her while she rambled.

Lopez has never seemed crazy in the way Paula does, but there’s definitely diva potential there. She hasn’t been relevant as a movie or music star in a while, but her heyday was recent enough that she may feel like she has to establish her supremacy as the biggest star on the panel. She may not be as loopy as Paula, but she could bring accidental entertainment just the same.

But Paula, though she provided amusing weirdness, was never the key to the “Idol” judging panel.

Simon was. And they haven’t replaced him, not unless Tyler is a lot more candid than I expect him to be.

“Idol” has had bigger problems than the judges in recent years, thanks to a crop of mostly uninspiring singers (though of course some of the blame for that falls on the judges and producers who picked the ones America got to vote on), and thanks to voters who have crowned the same basic type of winner (middle-of-the-road white guy with guitar) three years in a row. And maybe Lopez and Tyler’s tastes might be different enough from that of the departed judges that America won’t be able to screw it up with how they winnow down the semi-finalists.

But whether the singers are good or bad, the show needs Simon – or some version of him. It doesn’t need an aging rock star whose decades of success won’t mean much to the tween “Idol” power-voters. It needs someone who A)has a good idea of what will and won’t be comercially successful, and B)is willing to be completely blunt (if not cruel) in separating those who’ve got it from those who don’t.

I’m not sure the show could have brought in anyone to fill Simon’s shoes, simply because fans have become so protective of the franchise over the years that they would hate anyone who came in and was mean to the contestants. (Simon got away with it because he was grandfathered in from the start; we had years of history of him usually being right.) But the producers should have at least tried to bring in some kind of music industry veteran, like maybe Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine (who will instead serve as an in-house mentor, and hopefully be allowed to nudge the kids towards better song choices), who has a track record and a willingness to speak the truth even if it means hurt feelings and boos from the sheep in the studio audience.

The casting of Tyler and Lopez indicates that somebody – whether FOX execs, producers on the show, or both – felt that what the aging franchise needed was star power. And that’s wrong. “Idol” doesn’t need stars. “Idol” makes stars. Who in America had any idea who Simon Cowell was before the show debuted? How long had it been since Paula Abdul had a hit song? Did anyone even remember Randy’s stint as the bass player from Journey?

Maybe Tyler and/or Lopez wind up being far franker than I expect. But if they’re not, it doesn’t matter how big they were on the charts once upon a time.

About the only positive I see is that we’re back to three judges again, which might, if we’re lucky, actually give us more songs per episode again.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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