Ellen DeGeneres needs to bring her A-game to ‘American Idol’

Television Critic

Here are a few things to consider about Ellen DeGeneres: She became a stand-up comedian when that was rare for a woman. She has starred in three shows -- two prime-time comedies and a daytime talk show -- named after her. She voiced an animated character so popular that aquariums across the country have special Dory and Nemo exhibits.

She is the first major female star not only to come out publicly (on " The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which is as public as it gets) but also to then have her television character come out as well. She has won 12 Emmys, successfully hosted the Oscars and Emmys and convinced a slew of guests on her daytime talk show, including the then-future president, Barack Obama, to dance. On national television.

In other words, for all her chirpy “I’m just a gal who’s happy to be here” persona, DeGeneres is a force to be reckoned with, a woman with as much ambition and chutzpah as Harvey Weinstein or, for that matter, Simon Cowell.

So what’s with the shrinking violet act on “American Idol”?

In her first weeks, DeGeneres spent most of her time gazing shyly up at the various contestants, offering such brilliant insight as “you’re adorable” and “lots of people will vote for you because you’re adorable.”

Indeed, if it had been up to DeGeneres, no one would have gone home last week and every contestant would have probably gotten a fabulous gift basket from Mrs. Beasley’s.

Far from taking on the famously raven-harsh Cowell, as she promised to do, DeGeneres seemed at times in danger of disappearing almost entirely, dwindling to nothing beyond those unblinking baby blues and that Ryan Seacrest cowlick. Did it leave us missing Paula Abdul? No, Kara DioGuardi, with her embarrassing lust for Casey James, seems to be perfectly happy playing the nutty card.

But it’s difficult not to miss Ellen.

To be fair, DeGeneres has several things working against her. This year’s contestants are far from dazzling, and as yet, no one has popped, musically or personally, the way Adam Lambert did last season. And, as she was quick to point out, DeGeneres has no background in music, though that may be more of a psychological obstacle than a real one. None of the judges offer deep analysis -- “pitchy” is a favorite term. They are all, Cowell in particular, more interested in assessing marketability than talent. It’s called “American Idol,” not “American Musical Genius,” after all.

Speaking of Cowell, he seems in rare disgruntled form this season. Whether he’s simply disappointed in the lot of them or just ready to get the heck off this show and onto “The X Factor,” he has been the model of the attention deficit disorder-plagued agent/producer/studio executive, spewing clipped words of disappointment like an aggrieved father and doing everything but interrupting a performance to yell, “Next.”

It’s an intimidating place to be, no doubt. But that is why, presumably, DeGeneres was hired. This is the woman who hosted the Emmys three weeks after 9/11, for goodness’ sakes. She and Cowell should be natural foils, whatever their actual relationship. They are both stars, both funny, both direct and both very sure of themselves.

But while Cowell is not interested in the emotional needs of the contestants, that is what DeGeneres is there for: to give voice to the viewers at home, take the sting out of some of the criticism and bring levity to what can be a repetitive and frustrating process. That is what Abdul did, but with DeGeneres, we expected a humor that was smart and intentional rather than ditzy and incoherent.

Or failing that, DeGeneres could try to bring some order to the dysfunctional family she has just joined. Someone needs to help DioGuardi out of her possibly legally actionable cougar corner. And someone needs to deflate the tension between Cowell and Seacrest, who have become so hostile that it’s almost unbearable to watch.

But so far, DeGeneres is doing none of this. Where Abdul was warm, she is cool; where Abdul was fearless (crazy but fearless), DeGeneres seems hamstrung. On Tuesday night, she offered a few pieces of straight-up advice: Play to your strengths, loosen up, try to feel the song more. But her attempts at humor have been vague and tentative, her compliments so ubiquitous that they quickly lost sincerity -- and, seriously, the woman needs to blink once in a while.

This is not to say that DeGeneres should view “American Idol” as a comedic showcase. When she was chosen as the fourth judge, many wondered how she would fit her headliner personality into what is not just an ensemble but a secondary ensemble -- ideally the stars of “American Idol” are the contestants.

But if she’s there to balance Cowell, and perhaps, given his recent announcement, even replace him, then she needs to address the show the way Cowell does. “American Idol” is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for singers to skip all the work and dues-paying of a career musician, so the contestants need to bring their best effort to the stage each and every time. If they’re too shy or confused or insecure to do that, then, guess what? They need to find another line of work.

DeGeneres is perfectly positioned to be a similar voice of professional, and humorous, reason. And unlike Cowell, she doesn’t have to revel in borderline nastiness to be frank. She knows what it takes to be a star and that being adorable or likable isn’t enough.

So the next time she tells a singer that he or she just needs to be a little more confident and to own the performance, maybe she should pause for a moment and take her own advice.