Ellen DeGeneres may not have years of experience in the music industry, but who cares? Her ability to sit still, be quiet, and (oh. em. gee.) actually pay attention to what’s happening on the stage in front of her could set an exciting new precedent for American Idol‘s generally frustrating judges’ panel: Yes indeed, the show is actually about discovering the next generation of music superstars, not watching four nimrods at a table drawing mustaches on each other, misstating pertinent facts about music history, and finding new and annoying ways to make the phrase “you gave it 100 percent” their own.

So yes, despite my early fears that Ellen would be too focused on punch lines to give legitimate critiques, I’m exiting her first hour of Idol feeling relieved, hopeful, and maybe just a little psyched. Not only did the comedian/talk-show host treat the Paula Abdul Memorial Chair with a level of dignity and purpose that it had never before experienced, but she wasn’t afraid to dole out tough criticism when necessary. Tonight, with just a few minutes of screen time, we heard Ellen telling Idol wannabes they were frightening, boring, and not yet ready for the big stage — something her “Straight Up”-singing predecessor was never quite able to pull off.

And unlike Paula, when Ellen offered her praise tonight, it seemed informed and passionate, not knee-jerk and suspect. [SPOILER ALERT, WEST-COASTERS!]. And the fact that Ellen (and Simon, Kara, and Randy) found reason to get stoked is good news indeed, seeing how the lackluster season 9 audition rounds had left me feeling kinda dubious about the talent level this year. Guitar-playing divas like Janell Wheeler and Crystal Bowersox, inventive arrangers like Andrew Garcia and Lilly Scott, and several other contestants proved that a newcomer might be able to find room in my heart (as well as on the charts) alongside last season’s powerhouse Kradison troika.

What did you think of tonight’s Day One at Hollywood Week episode? Did Ellen exceed/fall short of your expectations? Did Kara’s misrepresentation of season 8 history leave you scratching your head? More on that last-referenced ridiculousness in my full TV Watch recap, which is live now. Until then, head on down to the message boards to share your thoughts, and by all means, make like @thedavidcook and follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak. (Hot-ass interview with the season 7 champ embedded below, for your entertainment!)

Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox