To celebrate the return of America’s Got Talent on Tuesday night, I thought it might be fun to put on our judgment hats and take a few minutes to think about which reality TV show judges out there really rock our socks… and conversely, which ones not so much.
So what makes a great reality judge? Is it the ability to make solid judgments about the contestants, complete with the ability to not only advance the shining stars in a given competition, but to add valuable, thoughtful critique to those who get sent home? Is it a knack for entertaining the audience? I mean, I spent half a season of The X-Factor telling Simon Cowell to shut up from my sofa, but I still relish watching him rip deserving wannabe divas apart. Is it expertise? Flair? An on-stage pet, Cee Lo Green style?
Actually, it’s all of those things — okay, maybe not the pet and the wardrobe, but let’s be honest, show of hands who looks forward to each new episode of The Voice just to see what Cee Lo is wearing… or Christina, though for entirely different reasons. I swear, last season’s satellite-lampshade-frisbee hat thing was staring into my soul.
There are a lot of changes destined for quite a few reality TV staples in their newest seasons — Steven Tyler has left the building over at American Idol (sad face) and Britney Spears is taking a seat at The X-Factor table — can’t WAIT to see how that works out, though she can’t possibly be any worse than Nicole Scherzinger was… could she?
Anyway, below are, in our humble opinion, the five best and worst reality show judges in recent television history.
5. Sharon Osbourne (America’s Got Talent)
Look, I love Sharon Osbourne. I was raised on The Osbournes. I almost named my puppy “Sharon” purely so I could do my best Ozzy every time I called her into the room. But Sharon is just so… NICE. I would never fault someone for being “too nice” but Sharon seems to have a hard time crushing dreams and unfortunately, that’s an essential part of her job.
Ellen’s short-lived tenure on that bastion of reality TV programming was plagued with problems similar to her predecessor on this list. On her own, I love Ellen. I love The Ellen DeGeneres Show. I love her glorious mockery/reading of 50 Shades of Grey. But she’s too nice to smash dreams. I’d like to hang out with Ellen. I wouldn’t like to watch another episode of American Idol being judged by Ellen.
3. David Hasselhoff (America’s Got Talent)
This was a hard addition to the “worst” list because in a lot of ways, Hasselhoff was a fun judge. I have a soft spot for chronically drunk people. His wasn’t the first “drunk dude trying to eat a cheeseburger” video I’d seen in my life. But since we’ve determined that there’s more to our criteria than just being amusing, at the end of the day, what else did the Hoff really bring to the table?
2. Christina Aguilera (The Voice)
Oh god, where to start? Christina Aguilera’s ideal contestant on The Voice is… Christina Aguilera. Every bit of advice she offers is intended to inspire the contestant on the receiving end to don a corset and some bleach blonde extensions, grab a few scantily clad back-up dancers, and belt those high notes. And low notes. In fact, just belt everything. In my house, we actually created a Christina Aguilera drinking game during the last season of The Voice: Take a drink every time Christina finds an excuse to sing, take a drink every time she talks about “soul,” take a drink every time she mentions being on the Mickey Mouse Club, take a drink every time she talks about being friends with Justin Timberlake, take a drink every time she manages to turn one of her mentee’s performances into The Christina Show…
1. Nichole Scherzinger (The X-Factor)
Of course, at least Christina Aguilera is capable of forming solid opinions of contestants and following through with those opinions, even when they make no sense. On the other side of that coin is ex-Pussycat Doll and resident airhead Nicole Scherzinger who could routinely be counted on during The X-Factor to default to “America’s choice” when the choices got tough. Oh sure, make us the bad guys. Need I remind everyone of the Rachel Crow/Marcus Canty debacle? It was one of the greatest examples of shucking responsibility that I’ve seen in my life.
Tyra is an expert in her field, from the being pretty part to the practical business side, so I tend to assume that she knows what she’s talking about when she’s giving her young hopefuls advice. She’s a supportive mentor, but she’s not afraid to hurt some feelings or completely lose her mind at a given time, for the benefit of our entertainment.
4. Blake Shelton (The Voice)
Loyalty has to count for something, right? Blake takes his mentoring duties seriously, even after the cameras stop rolling, which is awesome, since I get the impression that such an attitude isn’t exactly the industry standard. Compare his team collaboration from this past season with that of fellow judge Christina — he was practically a glorified back-up musician, giving his team plenty of hard-earned spotlight. During The Christina Show, her team members were pretty much just background dancers.
Michael Kors is like Simon Cowell lite. He’s informed and intelligent, an expert, blah blah blah. He’s witty and he can be harsh, and he can be SUCCINCTLY harsh, which is just amazing. “She just looks like a girl with a misshapen body with some stuff on her,” and my personal favorite, “That dress is just sadness personified.” The man should really just compile everything that comes out of his mouth into a book or something.
2. Simon Cowell (American Idol/ The X-Factor)
Without Simon Cowell, I think there’s a good chance that American Idol and its many, many imitators might never have become the primetime fixtures that they are. People who have zero interest in reality TV know who Simon Cowell is and what he’s famous for: being a brilliant ass. He also falls into the expert column, which is good, because snark alone does not a “best” judge make.
1. Adam Levine (The Voice)
Who would have thought that the dude from nauseatingly poppy Maroon 5 would make such an awesome judge? It’s in his expert status, certainly, I mean, he agonizes over every decision he makes, and not in the “it hurts my brain to think” way Nichole did/does, but in a way that reminds us all that while we sit on our sofas being entertained by the musicians with potential and their unquestionably awful counterparts, the decisions that the judges make on reality television has a real, tangible effect on contestants lives. Adam also gets bonus points for giving his mentees constructive criticism and understanding what the word “collaboration” means.
For someone who has mixed feelings that tend to err on the side of negative when it comes to my opinion of reality television, I must say that I’m delighted that my honorable mention is stocked with awesome judges whom I think highly of, rather than more overpaid train wrecks.
Randy Jackson (American Idol) — He’s been there since the beginning, 12 seasons ago, so he must be doing something right.
On that note: Cee Lo Green (The Voice) — A great many of his decisions confuse me (which I’m sure is his intention) but he’s always a treat to watch.
Howard Stern (America’s Got Talent) — I was skeptical, but he’s converted me. Mostly I just appreciate his willingness not to pander to the cute kid loving audience.
Howie Mandel (America’s Got Talent) — I just really like Howie Mandel. I don’t know. He’s kind of a big dork, and we dorks love our fellow dorks unconditionally. This has been a problem for me since Deal or No Deal, actually.
Who would make your list of best and worst?
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