American Idol is back, but does anybody really care about the contestants? The most controversial and consequential thing about the new season is going on at the judges’ table, where the show has introduced its first new permanent judge: Kara DioGuardi, a 38-year-old songwriter who has written hits for Britney Spears and Pink, has a habit of calling people “honey” or “sweetie,” and has already been dubbed by the Village Voice as “the hottest anybody’s ever looked on Idol.” It’s the equivalent of adding a younger, cuter character to a long-running television hit, and as TV fans of all genres know, it’s a gambit that can either revitalize a show or ruin it. The biggest question of this season’s American Idol is not who’s going to win; it’s whether Kara will be a brilliant new addition or the character who finally makes the show jump the shark.
Though contestants on American Idol can sometimes become popular characters (Scott Macintyre, the blind contestant, is already on his way to becoming a cult figure), no characters are more important to the show than the judges, who are like the regular cast members of a scripted show. Each judge has a clearly defined personality: Simon Cowell is the vicious, sarcastic one, Paula Abdul is the clueless ditz, and Randy Jackson keeps the more eccentric characters grounded. The fun of most episodes is not the middlebrow song choices, but watching the judges react to them, and experiencing the famed tension between Simon and Paula. American Idol is really the story of three people with nothing in common who are forced to sit together and take orders from a dork like Ryan Seacrest; it’s not a music show, but the most popular sitcom around. When Idol tried adding new characters in its prime, it just seemed to be ruining a winning formula; an early attempt to add a second female judge, radio host Angie Martinez, lasted just five weeks.
But now, seven years later, the formula is familiar and the audience is a little bored. The show’s median age is now 40, as younger viewers prefer to go on YouTube to hear old songs get butchered. That’s where the new character comes in. With her youth, good looks, and involvement with songs that the kids know, Kara could have been created by a focus group. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, she came off as a composite designed to please every demographic, calling herself “a combination of all three judges” and adding: “I don’t really mince words, but I do feel I have a heart.” On the show, she tries to live up to the description by combining a bit of meanness (“You’re not a good singer, sweetie”) with Paula’s boundless self-esteem. Her big moment in her first episode came when she jumped up and showed bikini-clad contestant Katrina Darrell the right way to sing Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love. Darrell may have been right when she told Kara “that wasn’t any better,” but it wasn’t about showing someone how to sing better; it was about establishing a personality for the new kid.
The producers are also clearly hoping that having two women on the show will create a storyline about Paula Abdul and her relationship with the newcomer. The producer of American Idol, Ken Warwick, told reporters that one of the ideas behind the casting of Kara was that she and Paula (who helped Kara get started in the business) could use their girl-power to end Simon’s domination of the show: “We thought it was high time on the panel that Simon didn’t get his own way.” But viewers are more interested in whether the younger woman is going to steal her older mentor’s job. There have already been denials from both Paula and Kara, plus catty anti-Paula reviews: the New York Daily News declared that Kara stood “in stark contrast to a pushover Paula Abdul.” It’s like Idol has been injected with a dose of All About Eve.
But all of this assumes that audiences will like a new, younger character; anyone who hated Scrappy-Doo on Scooby-Doo can tell you that’s not true. Will Kara help American Idol any more than the addition of Kristin Bell helped Heroes? It’s too early to tell. Young viewers and women are still drifting away from Idol, but more of them tuned in for Kara’s second appearance, leading Fox president Mike Darnell to proclaim that “people like Kara.” That may or may not be the case, but at least she’s doing what the network wanted: creating some buzz, adding some new character dynamics, and coming up with a few lines that the other judges wouldn’t say. After all, she did tell a male contestant that “you have a really big instrument.”