Ellen DeGeneres’ debut makes her American Idol’s best judge

Last night, American Idol ushered in a new era. A major change at the judges’ table changed everything, and was really surprising and unexpected: The Coca-Cola cups were gone, replaced by oddly shaped orange and white Vitamin Water Zero cups. Even though that’s a Coca-Cola product, and even though those iconic red cups will be back for the live shows, it’s still a big shift.

Oh: And Ellen DeGeneres was amazing in her debut as the new fourth judge. She went from question mark to great immediately, sitting down and telling Simon Cowell, “So this is it, huh? I come on, you leave?” (Her debut was taped shortly after Simon announced to TV critics that he was leaving, and rumors that his tardiness led to tension didn’t seem evident at all.)

As a judge, Ellen was everything all at once: sarcastic, funny, supportive, and pointed. She didn’t shy away from real criticism (“I’m tired as it is. That almost put me out.”), but delivered it with honesty and sometimes humor that just worked. For example, she told a soon-to-be-cut Skiiboski, “Don’t frighten your audience. Don’t get so intense. Sexy and scary, it’s a fine line.” Her direct and honest appraisals continued during deliberations, when we heard Ellen tell the other judges, “I think she’s going to get annoying.”

Ellen even mocked the show’s method of getting rid of people during this first Hollywood week elimination round: She told a line of people to step forward or back, but then changed her mind about one person, and then told another to step sideways, and finally told them they were all through to the next round. Had smarmy Ryan Seacrest done the same thing, I’d probably have found it to be manipulative, but she sold it and then turned it into an obvious joke at exactly the right moment. The other judges were amused: “You sadist,” Simon Cowell said.

Best of all, Ellen managed to do all of this without drawing attention to herself or acting like a four-year-old. While Kara DioGuardi wasn’t always perfectly polished, and while her addition to the panel last year freaked out some people who weren’t used to seeing a female do more than babble incoherently about clothing, she actually caused the rest of the judges to step up their game. If Ellen keeps this up, she’ll do the same, and easily establish herself as the show’s best judge.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.