PEOPLE's TV critic doesn't exactly miss Simon Cowell – but somebody's got to cut through the goo

Credit: Frank Micelotta/FOX

American Idol‘s new lineup of judges – Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and veteran Randy Jackson – has been a huge success. But they no longer do much criticizing.

Even the classic Idol pejorative, “pitchy,” is heard much less these days. They respond to nearly every performance by throwing bouquets of praise at the stage. Then, when singers leave, they weep and fret and moan, heartbroken.

Jennifer has gone through so much pain already, I think she could have been cast in Mildred Pierce instead of Kate Winslet.

It’s not that I miss Simon Cowell, although his curt final word was always good for clearing the air between performances. It was like a knife scraping a cutting board clean of bits of chopped veggies.

The Idol producers deserve credit for revitalizing the show – they must be geniuses to have realized that Lopez’s glamorous kindness and Tyler’s gentle, kooky commentary would play so well.

The problem is that the spirit of Paula Abdul has possessed them all from some weird astral plane. An hour, 90 minutes, two hours – the minutes are swallowed up with woozy niceness. No show should have more than one Paula. Idol has three.

To some degree, you can argue, this doesn’t matter: The singers this season are exceptional, maybe the best group of finalists ever. So why bother criticizing them? Why not urge them to do better instead of harping on what they’ve just done wrong?

Because we end up losing a frontrunner like Pia Toscano to who knows what whim of the voting audience.

The judges are never going to be the ultimate arbiters of who stays and who goes – Cowell was patronizingly dismissive of Kris Allen, who trumped Adam Lambert in season 8 – but they help shape the horse race.

Last week the judges doled out sweet, sticky globs of praise for Pia, Haley Reinhart and Paul McDonald, then acted as if they’d been struck by lightning when the vote put not only Pia but Jacob Lusk in the bottom.

Viewers appreciate and enjoy hearing from these showbiz professionals on who’s pulling ahead and who’s falling behind. By now we have eight – soon to be seven – distinct singers, and yet the judges often give the impression they’ve just sat through an encore of the Von Trapps singing “Edelweiss.”

They are acting now more like celebrity mentors or coaches, leaving Jimmy Iovine to tell Casey Abrams that his previous performance was actually awful and not the greatest performance since the invention of the microphone. Maybe Iovine is the reason the season is so good.

So, judges, do a little more judging, along with the hugging? Thanks.