This season will be Simon Cowell's last as judge on Fox's smash-hit American Idol. The caustic Brit everyone loves to hate is stepping down to bring his show X Factor to American audiences next year. Few predict Idol--one of the rare programs attracting Americans across income, age, and race--will keep its massive audience of 26 million after Cowell leaves. So what does America owe the wedge-haired naysayer? Here's what entertainment critics think:

  • He Made Us All Critics, writes Stephen Marche at Esquire: "The sense of entitlement to judge everyone and everything, all day and every day, feeds and fuels our pop-culture appetite, and it finds its broadest, most democratic expression in the Idol format," he says. Cowell, "the hard man," is the only judge whose opinion really matters. "Often he's just saying what everyone else is too polite to say."
  • He Gave America Its Favorite Show, write Scott Collins and Denise Martin at the L.A. Times: "Even discounting Cowell's self-infatuated shtick, it's likely that his exit from Idol will mark the end of an era for America's No. 1 series and broadcast TV... if viewers decide a non-Simonized Idol isn't worth watching. Cowell is the 'mean judge' who levels direct, often withering appraisals at wide-eyed young contestants. His background as a music executive gives him a credibility that is matched by his ability to encapsulate what viewers were often feeling."
  • He Made Being a Prick Cool, writes Jonathan Berr at Daily Finance: "He never makes any bones about viewing Idol as a self- promotional vehicle, and his brutal honesty in a world of show business phoniness is downright refreshing. And it won't be much of a surprise if even viewers who loathe the prickly Brit find themselves changing the channel after this season ends."
  • Brought a Diverse Country Together, writes Richard Rushfield at The Daily Beast: "Idol's Big Tent has accommodated everyone from fundamentalist Christians to pop divas, but in an increasingly divided nation [and with Cowell's exit], will that spirit of friendly competition between the tribes stand?"