Tuned In

Who's the Best Reality-TV Judge?

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I’m on deadline today, so here’s another post that mainly involves you writing stuff instead of me.

In our American Idol threads this week, there’s been some debate about whether Simon Cowell is an ass or a useful honest critic. As a professional critic, my view is: there’s no reason you can’t be both! Seriously, I like Simon, and that probably is because (1) I think he’s usually right and (2) he performs the function closest to an actual music critic. What makes Simon effective—when he is—is not just that he rips on contestants who deserve to be ripped on. It’s that he is capable not only of criticizing but articulating the precise reason why a performance was bad, often something that I’ve noticed during the song but wasn’t able to put my finger on.

That’s the toughest part of a critic’s job, and for a comparison, you can just listen to Paula (“First, you looked really pretty tonight…”) or Randy (“Dawg, I just wasn’t feeling it tonight, it was just all over the place for me, dawg”). Simon’s not flawless: he can be mean for meanness’ sake, and like a lot of critics, myself included, he has some vague standard criticisms he falls back on when words fail him, most of them involving cabaret, karaoke and theme parks. (I have this mental image of Simon in his spare time, spending one miserable night after another suffering arms crossed through bad performances at Disney World or on a Carnival cruise ship.)

But he mainly does the job, which is probably why critics like me like him: he does our job, and he shows why doing that job well is tough (and often gets you booed). And it makes me think: one side-effect of reality shows has been that millions of Americans watch professional critics on TV. They call them “judges,” but they’re critics. Some do the job poorly, but the ones who do it well give you a real appreciation for the craft. Michael Kors on Project Runway is insightful and lacerating; Ted Allen on Top Chef (when he appears) has a softer touch but is great at dispassionately and humorously getting to why a dish does or doesn’t work; and Anthony Bourdain has a no-B.S. way with words that makes me jealous. On the other hand, Top Chef’s Gail Simmons almost never gives me a clear sense of why a dish works or fails, and the charity “judges” on Oprah’s Big Give are universally inane (even Jamie Oliver, who’s actually a good cooking-show host), but to be fair to them, the premise of the show is inane.

You may not know it Tuned Inlanders, but thanks to reality TV, you are surrounded by critics! So now, you are the critic: Who’s the best (and worst) judge on reality TV, and why? And I give you permission to be cruel for cruelty’s sake!