12:56pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: My Dream 'American Idol' Judging Panel for ABC
American Idol and I went through a lot together over 15 seasons. I've had phantom limb syndrome more than a couple of times this spring as Idol nights passed without anybody mangling "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" on my TV.
I greeted the news that Idol was being rebooted without any real shock. I'd have predicted it might be off the air for five years before anybody got an itch to bring it back, but in our age of instant-nostalgia, I don't know how I imagined it would lay fallow for that long. Realistically, one need look no further than Fox's ratings struggles this spring to know exactly why a slightly cheaper version of Idol could still be a huge asset.
I'm not quite sure how to respond to the show's shifting to ABC, but it seems as likely as anything. The network has a different tolerance when it comes to shows that skew a tiny bit older, a little less pressure to appear hip and cool than Fox might.
I do, however, know how to respond to NBC's The Voice sneaking in and hiring both Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson, thereby knee-capping rumors of an all-favorites Idol judging panel. Well-played, NBC. Well-played.
You can get Idol fans hyped about a Kelly/J-Hud/Glambert panel, but it's a lot harder to stir loins for Adam Lambert and a random assortment of veterans. It wasn't just that the hypothetical trio I listed represented three of the most talented Idol finalists ever. They also represented a trio of strong personalities that might have played well off of each other. Note-for-note, a Fantasia/Daughtry/Clay trio might come close, but personality-wise, I can't sell it.
I'd say that the most gangsta counter-move for ABC and Idol would be to snake the biggest winners of The Voice, but I doubt the producers of The Voice could name three winners of The Voice. That's not snark or shade. The most conspicuous difference between the two shows has always been that The Voice emphasized the chemistry between its coaches and the general talent of its performers over spawning future stars. We all make choices.
So when my bosses asked me to consider an ideal cadre of potential American Idol judges, it gave me pause.
Toss this group of seven in a blender and give me three of them and I'll be happy:
Simon Cowell — Yes, I'm thinking way outside of the box on this one, aren't I? But American Idol on ABC is going to feel inherently wrong, whether or not Ryan Seacrest is there. Bringing Simon Cowell back would make it feel right. I have no clue what his deal with America's Got Talent allows him in terms of flexibility or if he'd ever want to return to Idol, but my assumption was always that the eventual Idol resurrection would be predicated on Cowell's desire to come back. [Cowell has already apparently declined, but I would ask again. Several times. Otherwise, we end up with Randy Jackson back, and nobody wants that.]
Shonda Rhimes — Everything ABC does is predicated on the approval or disapproval of the High Priestess of TGIT. If you've watched Scandal or How To Get Away With Murder or read her tweets about Hamilton, you know Shonda knows her music. And if you've ever seen Shonda Rhimes field a dumb question at a press conference, you know that she both doesn't suffer fools and knows how to cut through the BS. Added bonus: Maybe you can get Crossroads screenwriter Rhimes to woo Britney Spears for occasional eccentric guest appearances.
Dolly Parton — Sassy, talented and loopy, Dolly mentored on Idol way back in the seventh season and she was terrific. She would fulfill the niche of "Talented industry veteran who knows a thing about music and interpreting songs" and also the "Unpredictable megastar who probably would say at least one utterly insane thing per per episode," but she would serve a much more important purpose. I already said you can't get revenge on NBC by stealing former contestants from The Voice, but grabbing Robert Greenblatt's former upfronts duet partner Parton? That would hurt.
Haley Reinhart — Outside of the Kelly/J-Hud/Glambert trio, Carrie Underwood is almost certainly next on the Idol veteran recruitment list and I guess she should be, since she's a big star. But, and I mean this with utter kindness, she's not going to be dynamic as an Idol judge. She'll be friendly and nurturing and whatever. Part of why Haley Reinhart always appealed to me as a contestant was that she seemed to know she was misplaced on Idol and thus she never bought into the show's affectations. You could count on her to be funny and honest and maybe every other week, she and Casey Abrams could do a duet. Plus, maybe Haley could also convince her F Is for Family co-star Bill Burr to come in and swear at the contestants periodically.
Sir Anthony Hopkins — As every regular American Idol fan knows, Sir Tony is among the show's biggest celebrity devotees, the rare movie star to voluntarily pop up in the Idol audience even when he didn't have projects to plug. I have no clue what Sir Tony's taste in music is like, but I know he'd add gravitas to any panel and that if you can't get Jennifer Hudson, you might as well get Anthony Hopkins, because Oscar winners are fairly fungible. By that standard, Roberto Benigni and Tilda Swinton would also be fine judging contenders.
Leslie Jones — With the possible exception of William Shatner, who I really wouldn't want as an Idol judge, few people have proven as reliably random in their Twitter enthusiasms than the Saturday Night Live favorite. I'm not sure if Jones even likes Idol, but if she could bring half of the craziness she delivered to ABC's Match Game, she would be an asset.
Lady Gaga/Adele/Beyonce — This won't happen, because the principle of ABC's American Idol resurrection has to be reduced cost and none of these superstars would be willing to do Idol at reduced cost (and probably wouldn't do it anyway), but The Voice has superstars on its coaching panel. You can't compete with superstars if all you have is never-weres and has-beens.
And now I'm going to be disappointed when Shonda Rhimes isn't the anchor of the new American Idol judging panel. Sigh...