It started out with a kiss.
In the premiere episode of ABC's American Idol revival, judge Katy Perry motioned for 19-year-old contestant Benjamin Glaze, who had never been kissed, to give her a peck on the cheek, only to turn her head at the last second to kiss him on the lips, startling him.
It was a shockingly tone-deaf moment in an era when sexual and power dynamics in Hollywood are being examined for abuses. But it was also a prime example of the show's biggest (and most expensive) impediment: Perry.
Four episodes into the reality competition, it's clear that the pop star's vibe is just wrong for the show. The audition episodes of Idol are taped and heavily edited, so Perry might change her style once it goes live next month. But right now, you can feel her suck the energy out of the audition room with a stray comment or action.
She's too wacky, too hammy and yes, too flirty for the competition, which was once about the singers but is now (like NBC's newer rival, The Voice) overshadowed by the judges. Maybe it's the whoopee cushions she and Luke Bryan leave on Lionel Richie's chair, or her frequently sexualized interactions with young male contestants, or a moment that reignited her long-running feud with Taylor Swift, or her lackluster feedback to contestants.
It's a shame, because otherwise there's a spark of interest to the judging panel. Bryan is harmless and good-natured, as complimentary as Paula Abdul was back in the day, and Richie is genuinely interested in assessing these young singers from a critical and commercial standpoint. And sometimes Perry does toe the line and offer more serious evaluation. But mostly, her feedback sounds the same (everyone has "something" about them) and she tends to draw the spotlight to herself in the auditions, through flirty interactions, dancing around the audition room or flat jokes.
Perry is the highest-profile member of the new judging panel, paid a reported $25 million, and clearly the anchor around which the show is built. But she's just not the right personality to do so. Perry has the star power ABC wanted to lure viewers, but she can't quite take a back seat to the would-be superstars the show is trying to build. The fact is, it's their stage, not hers, and she needs to cede it.