By Michael Slezak
July 20, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT
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I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s already that time of year again. You know, the point in the American Idol off season when we all start asking “Should/could Idol give Paula Abdul the boot? And what would it mean to the show?” Yep, as you’ve probably heard, over the weekend, Paula’s new manager David Sonenberg took public the loopy judge’s contract negotiations (or lack thereof), telling the Los Angeles Times that “very sadly, it does not appear that she’s going to be back on Idol,” and that he finds the lack of a formal proposal from the folks at 19 and Fremantle “unnecessarily hurtful,” “unconscionable” and “rude.”(For the record, a call to Sonenberg this morning has yet to be returned.)Whether or not Sonenberg’s statement is simply Paula’s attempt to use public sympathy to score a better contract (quite possible) or whether, after eight seasons, Idol is finally planning to dump her (also quite possible), or whether this is just a savvy way for the whole Idol team to get us talking about their show during its down days (my best guess), it nonetheless raises some questions about how the show will look and feel for season nine.

I’d love nothing more than for Idol producer Ken Warwick to look to his show’s sister program, So You Think You Can Dance, as an example of what a judging panel can and should do. The SYTYCD crew — Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy, plus a rotating guest judge — surpass the Idol panel in nearly every way. Their critiques are articulate, specific, and full of authority, and most importantly, display a degree of investment in the contestants and the program that Paula, Randy, Kara, and yes, even Simon, have not come close to matching over the last several Idol seasons. Not only that, the SYTYCD judges (especially Murphy) are infinitely funnier, and achieve a much more effortless camaraderie, than their Idol counterparts.

As for Paula, well, she certainly raised her game during season 8 — especially compared to her abysmal season 7 showing, which culminated with the Paulagate incident (in which she critiqued Jason Castro’s second number before he’d even performed it). But still, I’d contend that the fallacy of American Idol‘s judging panel, or more specifically, Paula’s place on said panel, is that “wacky”/”artistic”/”kindhearted” and “insightful” are supposed to be mutually exclusive. Look at SYTYCD‘s Debbie Allen, whose judging repertoire is filled with loopy surface nonsense — “you handled your big woman!” — that upon closer inspection turns out to be constructive and interesting. The woman may have her own patented brand of crazylingo, but she’s paying attention to what happens on the stage and she’s damned invested in making sure she provides loving, critical, helpful feedback to the show’s contestants. Paula scores points for “loving,” maybe, but considering how much she gets paid, shouldn’t she also be able to nail the “critical” and “helpful” aspects of the equation, not to mention “concise,” “coherent,” and “easy for the average viewer to understand”? Based on her job performance and her overall sentimental value to the show, is Paula worth the money she’s after?

My only real problem with Idol dumping Paula, in fact, is that she’s really only second runner up — behind the rambling, gaffe-spewing, and consistently disappointing Kara DioGuardi and the utterly nonsensical Randy Jackson — in the running for Idol‘s least valuable panelist. Randy’s contract locks him in till 2011, but Kara is also reportedly still negotiating to return for season 9. If the show’s only getting rid of one female panelist, I say let it be the woman who foisted “No Boundaries” on beloved contestants Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, as well as an unsuspecting public. Or, if Idol is really interested in change we can believe in, if the show’s producers want to proactively fight the show’s slow but nonetheless real ratings decline, maybe it’s time to clear the entire table to the left of Cowell, and bring in two new judges who can match Mr. Nasty in honesty, humor, and musical expertiese.

What do you think? Take our poll below (check out Jody Watley’s Idol blog before you vote!) and then head to the comments section to discuss this matter of vital national importance! (Also important: Follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!)

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