Jennifer Lopez, Bobby Flay

Many TV critics have already harped on the American Idol judges this season. Their refrain: J.Lo, Steven and Randy are nothing more than paid cheerleaders, incapable of criticism. In their eyes, all of the Top 13 contestants were winners, and their performances have deserved nothing worse than a "that was kind of pitchy."

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We agree, and would like to offer some advice by pointing to lesser-seen TV competition America's Next Great Restaurant, the NBC show in which the winner gets to open a new fast-casual restaurant chain. Seems to us, the Idol panel could learn a lot from the show's four judges Curtis Stone, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Steve Ells.

If what you're getting is disgusting, say it's bloody disgusting! In an early episode of America's Next Great Restaurant, Curtis got some greasy tater tots, and do you know what he did? He told the contestants whose chef had produced them that they were "pretty gross."  In another episode, he praised the concept for a fusion taco chain, but told the contestant "the problem is [your] tacos are disgusting." What he didn't do is spare their feelings. On this show, there is no equivalent of "pitchy," "just aiight" or "you know what I did love: you did you." America isn't interested in the next average restaurant, so that grilled cheese is either to die for, or it doesn't work at all. Those chicken skewers are either a handy idea for serving kids, or they'll poke holes in their throats.

Trying really hard shouldn't merit a thing. Isn't that a given on these shows? Wouldn't it be great if some of the Idol judges only rewarded the best with praise? Let's say a contestant serves up something like, oh, a semi-creepy version of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy." It wouldn't get a standing ovation anywhere -- but on this bizarrely overhyped season of Idol that's precisely what it got. (If nothing else, does Randy not remember a similarly eccentric performance deserving of a standing O given just two seasons ago?) What Idol's Casey needed was a good sobering smackdown, the kind former judge Simon Cowell so readily gave -- even to Idol's best singers -- when contestants goofed a performance or song selection. We're pretty sure he called Carrie Underwood both a robot and a Stepford wife on separate occasions, and at some point, he told every winner on the show, "you're getting boring." The thing is, it spurred most of them to action! Criticism, constructive criticism, lets these kids know they've got work to do, and then viewers get to see improvement, a treat we are sorely lacking this season.

Separate the real deals from the wannabes. Poor Stefano, no matter how hard he tries, he just isn't cut out for stardom. He reminds us of the America's Next Great Restaurant duo behind Grill 'Billies, who didn't know the difference between grilling and barbequing. Or the woman proposing a combo healthy food/fatty food restaurant chain, but allowed two different chefs to serve inedible food because she was too darned nice. These contestants didn't deserve to win, and the investors didn't wait to send them packing. The remaining group of hopefuls? All are people who'd be deserving of a win. (Yes, we include Mr. Saucy Balls because his food has been deemed tasty by the expert panel and there's not nearly enough fast-casual places to satisfy a meatball craving.)

Bottom line? It's the job of the Idol judges to let America know when someone is beyond hope — and fast. Was Pia the next Celine Dion? No, but she's got more of a shot at a record deal in the long run than poor lightweight Stefano. Because these judges can't do anything except empathize with both the great and mediocre, viewers are left flailing — and sitting through week after tortuous week of kids who are trying but ultimately hurting our ears. This isn't Talent Show Idol. No more handing out E's for effort. What the judges need to do now is help America raise up the real frontrunners: James, Scotty and Lauren, who are, for better or worse, the best of this year's lot. In doing so, they'll also be helping America eliminate Stefano, Haley and Jacob... all of whom need a lot of fine tuning before they're ready to record.

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Invest in the contestants. Literally. Otherwise known as putting your money where your mouth is. Sure, it's just a suggestion, but if you wanna judge America's Next Great Restaurant, you have to pony up. Here, the judges double as investors. The winning contestant on the show gets the beginnings of a restaurant chain — a three-city launch to start — and it will be, in part, funded by the judges panel. It's a system that makes for 100 percent unapologetic critiques of the contestants, from their leadership style to the staff uniforms to the food. As much as we'd eat at a place called Saucy Balls, and as much it was mined for laughs on the show, the judges renamed it right quick.

Imagine if J.Lo, Steven and Randy were going to help produce an Idol winner's album. What if they were profit participants on it? Underwood and Kelly Clarkson would have paid out nicely. Randy would have some sort of... proof of his relevance to the music industry. Most important, having a stake in the winner might be just the thing to force the feel-good threesome to feel something other than proud of themselves for choosing the Top 13.

How do you think the Idol judges are doing?