Thursday, 10 September 2009

You Know What They Say About Gift Horses...

From the CBC:

Ellen DeGeneres is dancing her way into the fourth judge's seat on American Idol.

Fox announced Wednesday that the talk show host and comedian, who admittedly has no formal music experience other than a passion for tunes, would join Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi for the ninth season starting in January.

Yes, it's official: Ellen DeGeneres is joining Simon, Randy and Kara at the judges' table. No joke. It's either the worst or best news in the world, depending on who you ask.

Personally, I've always viewed DeGeneres with a critical eye ever since she managed to single-handedly ruin the 79th Annual Academy Awards with her vaccumming and her picture-taking and her Oscar-statue Snugli. But that's just my opinion.

What will DeGeneres bring to the position, you may ask?

"Hopefully, I'm the people's point of view because I'm just like you," DeGeneres said on her show. "I sit at home and I watch it, and I don't have that technical. … I'm not looking at it in a critical way from the producer's mind. I'm looking at it as a person who is going to buy the music and is going to relate to that person."

So she'll be critical and nice. Uh-huh. Is that even possible, considering that DeGeneres is replacing (and will, in the mind of the viewer, be the "new") Paula Abdul, a woman that may not have intended for her entire arsenal of comments to be reduced to generic niceties, but a woman whose public image, once warped into such a caricature, forced her to make such statements?

In fact, the judging panel itself thrives on caricature. Reality TV viewers love their archetypes, and the success of American Idol's judging panel has led other competition-type programs, like So You Think You Can Dance and Britain/America's Got Talent, to follow a similar model.

First, there's the "critical" judge, who is usually British and provides someone for viewers at home to band against and boo. Simon Cowell (or, at least, his caricature) is the "critical" judge in its purest form -- Piers Morgan from Talent Dance's Nigel Lythgoe is similar, but far nicer, and Canadian Idol's Zack Werner does get some boos, but he hasn't developed a caricature like Cowell has.

Then we have the "harmless" judge, someone who isn't particularly edgy and can always be relied upon to provide middle-of-the-road commentary. The "harmless" judge doesn't have a particular culture or ethnicity attached to themselves like the "critical" judge does (mostly because, in the U.S., villains are often portrayed as having a British accent in TV and film), so they can range from Randy Jackson (who has been reduced to a slang-spouting, chain-wearing caricature through his work on Idol) to David Hasselhoff (whose comments on Talent are, befitting his archetype, harmless).

If the show follows a three-judge model -- and most do -- the third seat is filled by the "nice" judge -- Paula Abdul, Dance's Mary Murphy, Talent's Sharon Osbourne -- whose role on the panel is to be, in essence, someone for the audience to sympathize with (actually, now that I consider it, how is anyone supposed to sympathize with Sharon Osbourne, anyway?). This was particularly evident on Idol, where Abdul's constant battles with Cowell provided those at home with the perfect opportunity for taking sides. But I digress.

If a show goes one step further and adds a fourth judge, unless it had four judges to begin with (like Canadian Idol), well, that just throws a wrench in the works, doesn't it? That judge must assert their identity (and create a new archetype) in a model that rarely welcomes such changes with open arms. Should they be nice but harmless? Critical but nice? Or a blend of the three, which Kara DioGuardi, more than anything else, seems to be emulating thus far?

Ellen DeGeneres has, either wittingly or unwittingly, stepped into this tangled web -- and at this point, no-one knows what she'll do. Will she be, as one commenter said on the the CTV website, "witty, gutsy and compassionate"? Will she be Paula Abdul 2.0, forced into making Abdul-style comments by the archetypal weight that presses upon her shoulders (we'll have to see where she sits on the panel first, I suspect)?

Or will she be blinded by the spotlight, too afraid to be critical of a show that will give, most likely, a surge in popularity for both herself and her talk show?

There's a chance that, to DeGeneres, the Idol producers seem like a large horse with a golden, glittering gift in its mouth.

And, though I hate to be cynical, you know what they say about gift horses...

(Image from Wikipedia, originally taken by Alan Light.)

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