Hail to thee, Simon and the Dunk. You -- and ''American Idol'' -- have given the rest of us a reason to be critical, says Ken Tucker
Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, ...
Credit: American Idol: Fox

What’s good about ”Idol”’s judges and hosts?

Heaven knows I’ve dumped my share of scorn on the hosts and judges of ”American Idol.” Watching the MTV Video Music Awards this past week, I realized how deeply ingrained that scorn has become — as well as its ability to make instant celebrities out of people we either didn’t know or didn’t care about just a few months ago. Jimmy Fallon’s impersonation of Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman was spot-on, and when Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell took the stage, they recited all their little catchphrases on cue, as if the nation expected such repetition from them. (Abdul’s ”Two words: ‘phe’ and ‘nomenal”’ has become the instant ”Idol”-era equivalent of ”Where’s the beef?”)

But the more I watch and as we near the end of the series, I’m thinking, Would this increasingly repetitive, sad-sacky show be even tolerable if these folks WEREN’T there every week? No, it would not. Seacrest, Dunkleman, and the three musical stooges have made TV and the country safe for something dear to my heart as a critic: criticism.

Think about it: Before ”Idol,” you and I might sneer in private conversation about this or that empty TV personality, but you’d never see such contempt broadcast on television itself — TV is the place where public personages are supposed to make nice, unless they’re guests on a political talk show. Celebs, on the other hand, are notoriously suck-uppy and pandering toward each other. But switch on ”Idol,” and they’re going at each other with everything but hammers and anvils: Randy makes veiled threats at Cowell’s cavils, Cowell snickers at Abdul’s attempts to form a single sentence with both a subject and a predicate, even as Seacrest and Dunkleman act as surrogate audience members, putting down the judges so that the criticized contestants feel better about themselves.

What’s interesting is the public’s interpretation of this. At first, all I heard was, boy, that Simon sure is mean — when in fact he was just doing what a rock critic or an A&R man at a record label does: assess the quality and commercial viability of a musician. Pretty soon, though, he developed his own fan following in the studio audience (a microcosm, I presume, of a growing fan base among the millions tuning in). Folks were getting into this novel idea — hey, there are standards! All performers are NOT created equal! Cowell’s success forced Abdul and Jackson to become a teeny bit more parsimonious. (They failed miserably, but still — they were now TRYING to be somewhat more discriminating between one singer’s bleating and another’s clueless phrasing.)

By now, though, Cowell is down to two performers he actually likes, so he can barely muster a decent sneer. He and his two cohorts are reduced to parodying themselves on MTV. The process is complete: No future talent show in America will ever be permitted to exist without a little criticism — constructive, sarcastic, or otherwise. Even Seacrest and Dunkleman have learned that the well-pointed barb is more effective than a blob of mushy, meaningless praise.

Put aside, for a moment, the quest for the winner — before the deluge of post-”Idol” hype that will take the form of record contracts and concert tours — and realize that ”American Idol” has made it safe to say something uncomplimentary about another’s talent without a thousand voices whining about the ”cruelty” of being ”mean.” The irony of this entire cynical enterprise called ”American Idol” may be that it has retaught this country the value and virtue of criticism.

Do you see a positive side to ”Idol”’s judging?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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