‘American Idol’: Previewing the final two

Senior Television Writer
05.25.10 15 Comments

It’s arguable whether the “right” person wins each season of “American Idol” – certainly, fans of Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert would strongly disagree with that notion – but no matter who takes the crown tomorrow night, we can say it happened this year.

If Crystal Bowersox wins, then the public has rewarded by far the most talented and interesting performer of the season, albeit one of the most low-key potential winners ever.

And if Lee Dewyze wins, then we finish a sleepy season – which had a lot of hype and very little in the way of talent or good performances to back it up – by crowning a contestant whose praise from the judges never quite matched up to what we could hear from home.

My money’s on Lee, both because the show is on a white-guys-with-guitars streak and he seems a less-compelling amalgam of recent winners David Cook and Kris Allen, and because he seems more likely than Crystal to pick up votes from fans of recently-ousted contestants.

But whatever happens, this season can’t end soon enough for anyone – save the producers, who after tomorrow will finally have to grapple with the problem of replacing Simon Cowell.

Everyone else seems like they’d rather be anywhere else. The remaining judges all look silly for proclaiming this “the year of the girl,” only to see female finalists be the first three eliminations, and then for Crystal to be the last woman standing for a month. And a season into the gig, Ellen DeGeneres still hasn’t come close to finding a comfort level.

Every year, the grind of the “Idol” schedule starts to wear on the contestants, who go into a shell the deeper into the season we get, but this is the first year where they seemed to start off in that shell, playing things as safe and boring as possible.  Even the unflappable Crystal seems affected; her wonderful, tear-inducing rendition of “People Get Ready” feels like a very long time ago, and the most imaginative thing she’s done in recent weeks was to choose the theme from “Caddyshack” during the movie soundtracks theme show.

The audience is unengaged, as evidenced by both declining ratings and vote totals (when Ryan Seacrest even bothers to announce the number of votes this year, they’ve been down significantly from comparable points in seasons past). Whether it’s the lame group of finalists, the flab that comes from four judges, or the show’s incompetent and/or arrogant inability to end on time, the viewers have started to check out, and that’s with Simon still in the building.

A Crystal win would provide at least some redemption, since there were many weeks this year when she was the only reason to watch the show. She’s not blessed with the biggest or most versatile voice in the franchise’s history (or even in the top 10), but few have been able to match her confidence as a musician, singer and stage performer. (She was so good most weeks that she even managed to avoid Randy’s traditional backhanded compliment of “You’re our resident professional,” though he may not have bothered this time simply because no one was better.)

As for Lee, it’s not that he’s been bad. He’s been fine most weeks, and certainly no other contestant has a strong argument to make for deserving to be there in his stead. Siobhan Magnus went from weird and unpredictable to monotonous and combative. Casey James seemed happiest when he was noodling on his guitar in between singing. Big Mike Lynche had some memorable performances but also many snoozers (and had to be rescued by the judges when he was voted out early in the finals).

But I have two issues with Lee. First, both Cook and Chris Daughtry were better singers and much more charismatic performers doing the same growly Nickelback style of rock that Lee favors. Second, the judges’ comments about him most weeks have seemed wildly out of proportion to the quality of his performances – in particular, they never seemed to notice the three or four notes he didn’t come within the proper zip code of each week. I don’t know if it’s just the usual audio problems in the “Idol” theater (though we got very little of Simon’s usual “I listened to it again at home later that night” speeches about why he was too kind or cruel to certain contestants), if everyone just loves the gruff quality of Lee’s voice so much that they don’t care about the many bum notes, or if Crystal has been running away with the votes and they needed to prop up somebody as a worthy challenger to maintain suspense.

The second half of season four, for instance, morphed into “The Bo Bice Show” as the judges and producers tried to find a plausible alternative to obvious winner Carrie Underwood. The difference was that Bo was good enough to merit the praise most weeks, even if he didn’t have a prayer of beating the show’s most successful champion. I love Crystal, but she’d have been the Bo in this scenario, and this season hasn’t managed to find a Carrie, or Kelly Clarkson, and maybe not even a Fantasia.

If Crystal wins, I’ll be happy for her (and will hope that she doesn’t have to spend too much time singing the inevitably horrible “Idol” coronation song) but still glad this season is over. And if Lee wins, it’ll feel like this sluggish year for the show has ended on an appropriately underwhelming note.

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