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Post-Paula Depression

The unthinkable has happened — by losing Paul’s craziness, and with Simon heading for the door, ‘American Idol’ feels like it has finally reached the end of its run

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1100 from March 18, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

How do you replace Paula Abdul? You don’t. That’s no knock on Ellen DeGeneres — it’s just that absurd Hollywood creatures like Paula are rare and precious flukes of the universe, like the Loch Ness monster in sequined capri pants. Without Paula, American Idol loses its crazy factor, the suspenseful thrill that you’re never more than a few minutes away from seeing a grade-A display of batshit antics on live TV. And what is American Idol without a dose of crazy?

Sending Ellen in to take over Paula’s seat — that’s like if Queen decided to carry on without Freddie Mercury, but they replaced him with Phil Collins. It’s like giving John Bonham’s drum stool to Bosley from Charlie’s Angels.

Everybody misses Paula already — even Ryan Seacrest seems to shave a few decibels off the top of his customary “THIS . . . is American Idol!” The early-money front-runner for this season, Andrew Garcia, auditioned with an acoustic folky version of Paula’s “Straight Up,” a badass move that felt like a sincere farewell from a grieving fan. Without Paula, who will scare the other judges by jumping up and doing the Patty Duke at inappropriate moments? Who will gush dementedly enthusiastic word-jazz like, “It’s awesome when you’re fantastic”? Who will give not-at-all-drug-fueled speeches, burst into tears or bring out the sex panther in Simon? Nobody, that’s who. Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.

It raises the unthinkable question of whether American Idol is finally reaching the end of its journey. With Paula gone and Simon heading toward the exit, can this show exist? It feels like we’re watching the last unicorn ride into the sunset, especially if the unicorn is wearing a low-cut fuchsia top.

So it’s make-or-break time for America’s favorite show. Idol took a major gamble last season by increasing the amount of airtime given to the judges. This was a disastrous move, since one-quarter of the babbling was now done by Kara DioGuardi, a great songwriter (Ashlee Simpson’s “La La” remains a trash classic) but a really shitty babbler. With four judges, there wasn’t enough time left for the singers — the shows frequently ran long because of all the table talk. Since Kara was the judge with no clearly defined role or personality, she was left twisting in the wind. Nobody really knew why she was there, least of all her, and she made everyone squirm for her.

Last season turned out to be a historic high for Idol anyway, thanks to the presence of Adam Lambert, whose insane energy rubbed off on everyone around him. Between Glambert, Allison Iraheta and winner Kris Allen, it had to be the most flat-out enjoyable group ever. (Let’s just pretend Danny Gokey never happened, OK?) But that was a lucky break, rather than a real turnaround for the franchise. You don’t just go out and find another Adam Lambert, any more than you go out and find another Simon or Paula.

The judges were always part of the razzle-dazzle spectacle because they had cartoonishly oversize personalities — Paula loved everybody, Simon despised everything, Randy opposed pitchiness. But now that Paula’s gone, all that extra judging is just dead air. Neither Kara nor Ellen can take over Paula’s role of wildly overpraising everyone, because neither one seems dumb enough to believe it. When Paula told Sanjaya how hot he was, or told Taylor Hicks he was the greatest voice she’d ever heard in her life, we knew she meant it deep in that showbiz heart of hers — the same way we believe Bret Michaels when he tells each new crop of lacquered groupies they’re the most beautiful women he’s ever seen. But Ellen and Kara aren’t going to be able to sell that shit.

So far, Ellen has no judging game at all — “As someone who likes music, I enjoyed it”? Great, thanks, Showbiz Expert! Her scripted comedy bit about her supposed sexual chemistry with Simon was one of the most painful sights on network TV in a long time — it was like watching Luke Wilson’s tennis match in The Royal Tenenbaums, when he sits down and starts taking off his shoes.

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