Given what I have seen so far on this ninth season of Fox's American Idol, I can't imagine what Season 10 will look like. Or play like. Or sound like.
Most importantly, I can't imagine what it will be like without Simon Cowell. But I can imagine another British reality show host taking his place at the judges' table. I'll reveal that person's identity below.
When American Idol starts up again next January, it should be the beginning of a glorious five month celebration of its 10th anniversary. Idol came along to lift our spirits during the sad summer of 2002, and it didn't simply power up its network -- it ushered in a new era of competition programs and revitalized television overall. One can't help but wonder how Fox would have fared these last nine years without it. Further, would ABC have enjoyed the success of Dancing with the Stars? Would UPN and The CW have been bolstered by America's Next Top Model? Would Bravo and Lifetime have brought us Project Runway?
And yet, at present it doesn't feel like there will be much to celebrate next season. The huge question hanging like a cloud of swamp gas over Idol is: Who will replace the singularly sensational Simon, on whose shoulders the entire franchise now uncomfortably rests? He may not be the only judge worth listening to, but he's the only one who seems to understand that Idol is an entertainment series intended for viewer consumption. He consistently amuses and engages us, as did the much-missed Paula Abdul (sometimes in unfortunate ways).
Many names have been tossed about as possible replacements for the soon to depart Simon, but I no longer trust the Idol producers to make good choices, not after their many unfortunate moves these last two years. The roundly panned decision to add a fourth judge last season served only to slow the show down to a drag and expand its running time in such a way as to frustrate DVR users. The choice of Kara DioGuardi proved similarly unsound. (She seems like a nice person, she's very pretty and she's currently the most instructive judge, but she just doesn't pop as a TV personality.) When Abdul decided to bolt the show, the producers had the opportunity to effortlessly return to the three-judge format (and perhaps give Kara more time and space to develop), but they instead insisted on sticking with something that hadn't worked very well, rather than jump back to something that had. (They also stuck with the awkward and unpleasant judges' save thing, perhaps their worst idea ever.)
And then they brought in to fill Abdul's chair the beloved multi-media superstar Ellen DeGeneres (a person with no music industry experience of any kind), completely forgetting that Idol has since day one been all about unknowns, and by that I don't mean the contestants only. When Idol debuted in '02, few people had ever heard of judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson or co-hosts Ryan Seacrest (who is out-of-control-annoying this season) and fast flame out Brian Dunkleman. Abdul had been a big star – back in the Eighties!
The viewing public instantly embraced a show that was all about showcasing unknowns and making stars, but with the arrival of Ellen (and, worse, all those useless celebrity guest judges) it has veered into risky territory. Since I doubt that the powers that be would let Kara or Ellen exit along with Simon after this season ends, the selection of Cowell's replacement will mean everything to the future of Idol.
So who should that person be? I nominate Gareth Malone, the well-informed, tough-talking, razor-sharp star of the BBC reality competition-observational documentary hybrid series The Choir, in which he tirelessly trains kids and teenagers to sing in classical music groups at schools or in communities that generally do not offer music programs for young people.
After watching several episodes of The Choir (which will make its U.S. television debut on BBC America later this year) and coming to understand the guy, Malone strikes me as totally qualified for the Idol gig. He knows music. He's used to working with kids (most of them younger than the average Idol contestant) and he is especially good with those who have lots of talent but no real experience at performing. He has a strong presence on camera. He can be quite charming at times but can also be devastatingly direct, sometimes reducing his pupils to tears with his criticism. Since he always begins each arc of the show with more novice singers than will fit in a final choral group, Malone is no stranger to the difficulties of painful weekly eliminations. He can also be emotional, sometimes losing his cool, sometimes crying when he is moved by a particular performance or accomplishment.
Best of all, like Cowell and Jackson and DioGuardi before him, Malone is totally unknown to the American television audience, which goes right to the heart of what Idol is about at its best. (Also, it doesn't hurt that Americans seem to love to listen to British accents, especially when criticism is being given.)
Nobody can truly replace Simon Cowell. The only judge I have ever seen on any unscripted competition series with the same reliable chops is Anastasia Brown, who crisply and efficiently weeded out the weakest performers without batting an eyelash on the now-defunct Nashville Star. But I'm pretty sure there's no way the Idol producers will go with three female judges next year, so I say make a play for Malone.