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Reality competitions like it or not, have become a fixture in American culture. Their ubiquity might not endure, but for the time being they are a staple on network and cable television. It started with American Idol and has progressed into America’s Best Dance Crew, America’s Got Talent and many more America-something-or-other. There are many different varieties of these shows, all with differing themes and appeal. The constant in all of them though is a judging panel. And for the most part, a judging panel that doesn’t even matter; as most of these reality competitions leave the important decisions up the “at home audience”.
The secret formula for a successful panel was figured out early on with Idol; a soft minority guy (Randy Jackson), an eccentric girl (Paula Abdul) and a mean dude (Simon Cowell). There have been deviations, but that is the standard. And since that first panel – Randy, Paula and Simon – it seems the judging has just got worse and worse …
The hosts of reality shows get Emmy nominations. The contestants get fleeting fame and recording contracts. The judge’s – aside from very large paychecks – get nothing. Until now! And my reality competition judges rankings. With all these differing panels, and the newest Idol panel being – in my opinion – the worst to ever exist, I thought a ranking of the best through the years would be interesting.
And a note; there are the lame reality competitions that don’t have judges. The Amazing Race for example which has somehow managed to dominate this Primetime Emmy category despite being much less than “amazing”. There is also Survivor – which in a weird way pretty much opened the door for the Honey Boo Boo’s and the Kardashians’ of the world – who’s judging panel was the contestants themselves. These are not included in the list, because quite frankly I cannot possibly begin to judge, those that do not have judges …
Now let’s get to the rankings, shall we!
Honorable Mention) Top Chef —
The Top Chef judges include a few regulars – Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi – accompanied by a rotating chair – a la The Voice; bazinga! – of new faces every season. The reason they fall just short of the list is for the simple fact that I have never watched the show. To be honest, food shows don’t entertain me. Maybe it is because my kitchen is a few feet from my couch, and I could cook myself if I truly found it to be entertaining. That said, this is the only reality competition with a judging panel to ever win the Primetime Emmy in the category – which is ridiculous – and some level of respect must be given to the all white male Emmy panel. For that reason alone, Top Chef gets a
dishonorable mention on this list.
10) America’s Best Dance Crew – JC Chasez, Lil Mama, Shane Sparks —
You know how cable – especially in the 90’s – was considered to be sub-par to the networks? It had the cheaper versions of everything; sets, writers, personnel. This panel seemed to echo that sentiment in the 2000’s, even after the Breaking Bad’s and the Mad Men‘s had came along and made it clear cable could play with the big boys. That in mind, the bad-ness and general second rate performances of this panel worked. Ms Lil couldn’t have been any more of a foreshadow to the Nicki Minaj sporadic, never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get era coming to Idol. JC couldn’t have come across as anymore of a nerd, proving why they allowed Justin Timberlake to go ahead and take sole lead of N’Sync. And Shane couldn’t have been any more of an MTV cliche. These were all their genuine personalities though. In a way this panel gave you that MTV halftime show feeling, the one where you weren’t sure what could happen, and therefore it worked. For that reason – or maybe because the judges could call for an “instant replay” – this panel lands at number ten … Not sure which.
9) America’s Got Talent – Piers Morgan, David Hasselhoff, Sharon Osbourne —
The original AGT panel was quirky. Piers covered the mean guy, David covered the weird eccentric girl and Sharon covered the nice guy. It worked.
8) The Voice – Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green —
The Voice has found a niche. Though that niche doesn’t include myself – seriously this show is a freakin’ one trick pony – it is there. Helping to find that niche has been the judges. Adam Levine, a character in and of himself has shown a fun, charismatic side. Blake Shelton has emerged as a goofy ass cerebral dude, in a good way. Christina seems to be the second coming of Paula Abdul and just kind of annoys me, but she gets the job done. Cee Lo Green … <shaking my head> I suppose his presence on a show in which all it has going for it is a spinning chair makes sense, cause all he has is that single song …
7) Project Runway – Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia —
I’m not going to sit here and tell you I watch Project Runway on a regular basis. I’m not even going to tell you I have watched a full episode. That said, this panel and this show have been successful, and one must take into account the thoughts of his peers – the chicks I know love this show – when commenting on something. It is called peer pressure. This panel is adequate I would say. What it lacks in enthusiasm, I suppose is the overall theme of the show; modeling isn’t a happy business. It is cutthroat. It is serious. This panel is much of the same.
6) America’s Got Talent – Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne —
Howie is honestly a nightly treat. You didn’t watch Deal or No Deal for anything but
30 models him and when that show ended we needed him back on television. AGT made a great pick up – and replacement – with him. Howard seems to have left his shock jock styling’s on the radio, and somehow has come out as a nice guy. If NBC could magically bring back Piers and drop Sharon, you would have a super panel. That said, this is America, and you need a woman in a power position to appease the female population … Easy, I kid!
5) So You Think You Can Dance – Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy —
Nigel is to Simon Cowell, what LeBron is to Kobe. Those that come before, pave the way for others. Nigel’s presence as a producer on Idol makes me wonder why he didn’t step in and take the mean guy seat on that program, but as I think about it, it feels like he must have wanted to make his brand work on his own terms and not in the shadows of someone else. Ms Murphy – though equipped with that irritating laugh – knows her stuff, and the two make for great point, counterpoint.
4) American Idol – Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Kara DiGoudi —
Like I said, the original Idol panel was the staple. A standard to be followed. No one – aside from Idol producers we suppose – knew a hole existed in the formula. When Kara was added most people – including myself – didn’t get it. It didn’t help that she was an unknown, or a behind the scenes persona previously, but her knowledge and advice quickly shined through. She cozied up to the table – and to Simon – and was a pleasant surprise, no different than Demi Lovato …
3) Celebrity Apprentice – Don Trump, Ivanka Trump, Don Trump Jr —
This isn’t so much a “panel” as it is a mafia-esque family table. Nor is it a “panel” seeing as how Donald makes all the
irrational decisions. His judging and subsequent fires are usually for the most trivial of reasons, which I suppose gives the the show that you never know what is coming advantage. There is really no denying this shows drama. Sadly though with the original Don leading the pack, Ivanka doesn’t get as much speaking time … She could probably be an unparalleled star if she wasn’t a Trump.
2) Dancing with the Stars – Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli —
A really great make up and complementary set of personalities. Carrie is a sweetie, who seems to have a solid head about her. Never one to criticize too much – nor praise too much – her advice is always well intentioned and helpful. Len sure covers the bastard guy need on the panel, but he does it in a way a Grandfather would treat you. More or less he is unimpressed, and you could do better. You don’t resent your Grandfather for his words; instead you want to work for him. Bruno, Bruno, Bruno. Dude has a mouth on him and a personality to match. Though I am not completely sold that he knows how to dance, those that can’t do, teach. He judges with an inspiring vigor of which makes you want to please him. This panel works. It really does. Hence we have had a bajillion seasons of the show, without a single judging switch.
1) X Factor – Simon Cowell, LA Reid, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears —
This is a relatively new panel and only their first year together, but they have been a pleasant surprise so far. With Simon, you know what you are getting. A brutally honest, arrogant bastard, that you love to hate. LA Reid covers the minority nice guy angle, but does it with a twang that says I know what I am doing. He isn’t too nice, and his lexicon is more than just the word “dogg”. Britney has been fierce, and it is fun to see her not being ushered around stage like when she is performing. Demi – probably the brightest bulb of the panel – has been a wonderful surprise. She is current, relevant and can relate to the contestants. She is also rather intelligent and when her bubbly laugh comes out, I have a kindergarten crush … Together all four of these judges complement each other like spices on a lazy susan.
And there you have it. The first and only ranking of reality competition judges you will find anywhere. That said, per most shows, my expertise only goes so far. It is up to YOU, the at home audience to decide … So call in and text your votes; or just use the comments below I suppose.
Mike ‘Box’ Elder loves to bet on reality television, but it never seems to payoff. Currently he likes Beatrice Miller to take this seasons X Factor … Follow his thought provoking insight on Twitter @mikeboxelder.
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Category - Pop Culture