Why ‘American Idol’ needs Paula Abdul

The “crazy” judge is as important as the “mean” one

Is Paula Abdul reality TV's Lucy Ricardo?When Paula Abdul announced on Twitter that she would not be returning to American Idol for another season, the question at the heart of all the ensuing discussion was this: does the show need her? TV writer and blogger Ken Levine put it simply when he imagined a producer asking her manager, “What exactly does Paula Abdul bring to American Idol that we can’t replace?” American Idol has always basically been the Simon Cowell show; he’s the one who provides the memorable put-downs. The main job of any other judge is to offer a counterbalance to the acerbic Simon. Paula wanted to be paid as though she was just as important as Simon, and the producers didn’t agree. By announcing the intention to fill her slot with guest judges, including Katy Perry and Posh Spice, they’re essentially betting that anyone can do what she did.

But is that true? There are two reasons to think that she’s an essential part of the show. One, her legendarily weird behaviour provides a large portion of the unpredictability on what has become a relatively predictable show. Simon’s insults, and even the moments when his heart melts and he pays someone a compliment, are well-known and widely-anticipated. But nobody can anticipate Paula. Many of the show’s most memorable and bizarre moments come from her apparent disconnect from reality, like the time she criticized a contestant for his performance of a song he hadn’t sung yet, or the time she told another singer that she wanted “to squeeze your head off and dangle you from my rearview mirror.” Her over-emphatic gestures and slurred speech haven’t only led to her spending lots of time denying that she’s a substance abuser; they’ve become almost as iconic as Simon’s sneer, and in some ways a lot more fun.

The other thing Paula brought to Idol was a certain connection with what the show is supposed to be about: music and performance. Many people have noted that she’s the nicest and most enthusiastic of the judges, and that the contestants seem to think that her criticism is the most constructive (once they figure out what she’s trying to say). That’s what made her the perfect foil for Simon. Cowell, a producer and executive, looks at music as a business, and evaluates every performer as a possible commercial prospect. Abdul can relate to contestants and loves performance and performers. She may be weird, but she provides a certain warmth that the show might not otherwise have.

That might explain why other reality TV producers are interested in getting Paula on their show. She’s in talks with So You Think You Can Dance, and ABC chief Stephen McPherson told the Television Critics Association that he was considering signing Abdul (who used to date him) for Dancing With the Stars, calling her “a huge talent.”

If you think about it, Abdul’s two biggest characteristics—her warm likeability and her craziness—are the characteristics that make a memorable TV character; like Lucy on I Love Lucy, she’s someone lovable enough to invite into your home, and weird enough that you think she’ll make a wreck of everything. Let’s see Posh Spice do all that.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.