Tuned In

Idol Watch: Give 'Em Ellen

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Ellen DeGeneres kicked off her American Idol career last night with the Hollywood round of the auditions. Was she an entertaining hire? Absolutely. Unsurprisingly, for someone who’s been on camera for decades, she was immediately confident and able to mix it up with the contestants and, to a lesser extent, the other judges. While she wasn’t specifically musically critical (not being a musician), she was willing to criticize when it was due as well as to praise. And it was fun to watch her have fun with her new job, as when she had a line of contestants step back, then forward, then to the left, etc., before telling them they’d all made it through.

But was she a good judge? I don’t know. Neither do you, and we won’t for a while.

The reason, simply, is that in a few weeks, Idol shifts from being a taped show to being a live show. It would be stunning if you put Ellen DeGeneres before cameras for a couple days and she didn’t give you a great reel of footage to edit. But there’s no way of knowing how well and quickly, in the moment, she’ll be able to critique, praise and give feedback to contestants on stage.

If what we saw last night is what we’ll see live, though, Idol made a good choice. Ellen was sharp and funny and likeable, but she also seemed conscious that she was there to be a judge. My concern with her was that it would not be in her nature to be brutally honest when she had to be, but that’s not an issue so far; in fact, her sense of humor may give her license to be tougher.

The even more interesting question will be how Ellen, in live judging, will affect the balance of the four-judge panel overall. Interestingly—and again, this was taped and edited, so who knows how it will play live—it was Randy and not Kara who seemed more superfluous last night. It may be that Kara, no longer overlapping Paula in the woman-from-the-music-business slot, will be able to come into her own more now. Or it may be that Kara, even though she overlaps Randy in the behind-the-scenes-industry-pro slot, is just more confident in her second season.

In all, though, a strong first night, with some promising musical auditions to boot. (A lot of great-sounding singer-guitarists, especially among the women this time out.) Maybe this season can send Simon Cowell off, as it were, on a high note.