Simon Says Cheerio

January 13, 2010
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With all the talk of Jay being canceled, Conan being unwilling to leave his time slot, Google leaving China, and Raimi and Maguire leaving Spidey, so far we’ve missed the week’s other big divorce: Simon Cowell is leaving American Idol.

Ellen DeGeneres joked about his departure, but then noted seriously, “I am going to be very, very sad to see him go, because I think he’s made the show what it is.” She’s right about that last part. Indeed, I want to make the argument that American Idol needs Simon, or at least an angry, pompous, belittling Brit judge like him.

It’s not that he’s angry, pompous, and belittling, though those are all qualities that work for the show too: just as the writers of Glee could probably tell you, if you want to get away with all this schlock of people singing and crying, a large dose of ironic distancing can help some of the audience to stomach it, and Simon is integral for that.

But the key part is that he’s all those things and British. This is *American* Idol, after all, and so central to its pitch is that it’s just so darn democratic, just like this beautiful country of ours (oops, sorry: “yours”). Contestants succeed despite the odds. And those odds may be a complete lack of talent in some cases, but they’re also framed as being centered on Simon, the nasty Brit elitist who insists on getting in the way of all these American dreams, leading to him being booed, and “shut up” by the voters (who Ryan Seacrest grandiosely refers to as “America”), and forced into submission by the eventual success and popularity of the idols. Even when he has nothing but compliments, there’s supposed to be an air of the Great American Talent having silenced the nasty aristocratic European through pure brilliance. In a show where sound is so important, Simon sounds so very British, and so very alien. And just as in countless other items of Hollywood in which the Brit is the stuck up jerk, so too do we see a weekly or nightly telling of the fable of American nationality – democratic, accepting, optimistic, cool, can-do, hopeful and persistent in the face of Old World aristocracy, hierarchies, and meanness. The Revolutionary War didn’t end – it just became a reality show on FOX with singing, egregious product placement, and Sanjaya.

Without Simon, therefore, it’s not American Idol – it’s just a version of Idol that happens to be in America. He’s quintessential for its nationalist pitch (and, as an aside, he shows the degree to which America’s never quite gotten over its love and fascination with Britain, try as it might. Heck, just listen to the tune for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”). And while I’m sure it could still do well in the ratings without him, unless they replace him with another ne’er-do-well Brit (or perhaps a cold German or Frenchman, but American TV hasn’t shown itself ready for Germans or Frenchmen), I’d expect to see those ratings dip, as the national resonance dwindles.

Or would supporting the show in spite of his absence be the final way to show those pesky Brits that it’s USA all the way, baby?


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2 Responses to “ Simon Says Cheerio ”

  1. Myles McNutt on January 13, 2010 at 9:15 PM

    Considering NBC replaced David Hasselhoff with Howie Mandel on America’s Got Talent, I’d say that we’ve got the start of a trend: we need to come up with a Canadian to replace Cowell.

    • Jonathan Gray on January 13, 2010 at 9:22 PM

      nah, the Canadian could only take Paula/Ellen’s place, since we’re meant to be so nice. Though I wouldn’t put it past FOX to consider Shatner, and hey, that’d be amusing in its own right