With tearful dismissals, ecstatic passes, and dubious choices, we have our final 36
American Idol, American Idol

‘American Idol’ recap: Drama, drama, drama

You want drama, people? Then pay no attention to the girl who turns up the volume on her screeches every time she sees a camera. And forget about the guy who’s been cast in the role of ”comic relief” and is threatening to don a bikini if it’ll help keep him on your TV screen for another week. Don’t even sweat the trumped-up drama of the ”judges’ mansion,” with its rococo-on-a-dime design, its gaudy red chairs, and (presumably) a basement dungeon that contains the bound and gagged singing careers of Haley Scarnato, Anwar Robinson, and Lisa Tucker.

There’s drama all right, but for once in this very strange eighth season of American Idol, it’s springing forth from exactly the right place: the ferocious and addictive process of finding America’s next singing sensation. Yes, we’re down to the final 36, and while I have yet to fall truly madly deeply for any one singer — despite the fact that the producers have done everything but tell us that every vote for Lil Rounds will help feed starving orphans at home and abroad — on the plus side, I can’t remember a group of semifinalists this evenly matched in all of Idol history.

The prospect of next week’s semifinal showdown alone has me so excited I can almost overlook the fact that the show’s producers somehow forgot to include footage showing what the heck happened to one of my favorite under-the-radar Hollywood Week contestants. (Omigod, they forgot Kenny…Hoffpauer!)

Seriously, though, let’s consider who’s performing next Tuesday: Danny Gokey, Anoop Desai, Stephen Fowler, Brent Keith, Ricky Braddy, and Michael Sarver on the men’s side; and Casey Carlson, Jackie Tohn, Anne Marie Boskovich, Alexis Grace, Stevie Wright, and Tatiana Del Toro on the women’s side. Remarkably, only three of those folks are assured a place in the top 12. (For the uninitiated, this season’s semifinal format will feature three straight weeks in which a dozen contestants perform, with America voting through one man, one woman, and the next highest vote-getter of either gender, and sending nine others home; after those three weeks, the judges will name three additional ”wild card” contestants to complete the top 12.)

So who’s it gonna be? Danny or Anoop? Anne Marie or Alexis? Stephen or Stevie? Or maybe Ricky, one of the dudes that Paula’s been talking up as a possible superstar during her latest round of media interviews. I mean, even if the transition from the audition process to the voting rounds leads to the derailment a third of those vocalists — remember how Sanjaya Malakar and Mikalah Gordon seemed like legitimate contenders before they came unglued up on the live Idol stage? — next Wednesday’s cuts are still going to sting. So before we examine the other 24 semifinalists (and all the related deliciousness of tonight’s telecast), let’s see if we can sort out the contenders from the pretenders among the first dozen up to bat.

I think we can start by eliminating: Tatiana Del Toro. I know, I know, a lot of you are going to lose sleep that a ”Vote for the Worst” campaign can keep The Mad(dening) Giggler’s dream alive. But the return to a ”12 singers enter, three singers leave” format actually reduces the power of merry pranksters to tinker with the voting process. Mull it over this way: Don’t you think a much greater number of rabid Idol fans will turn out for the three best performances each week than folks who don’t actually care about the final results and call in for the ”worst of the worst” on a lark?

Which isn’t to say that Tatiana should’ve advanced to the semis over singers like Jenn Korbee or Frankie Jordan — what? you thought I was gonna use this occasion for one last shout-out to Deanna Brown and Leneshe Young? — who might’ve actually stood a chance with the voting public. It’s just that, well, I’m not going to let an ant running across my leg ruin the whole picnic. Especially not an ant who showed up tonight wearing one of the least flattering frocks in TV history, a washed-out beige number with poofy taffeta sleeves that hugged poor Tatiana in all the wrong places. How can I feel enraged at this halfway decent singer with a grating personality when Fox is just about to drown her in the office water cooler? If Tatiana is truly as unhinged as she appears, then the whole scenario is merely depressing. (Where are the girl’s parents with a badly needed reality check?) And if she’s just like Norman Gentle, playing the role that Idol‘s producers have handed to her, why should I take the bait? (Speaking of which, did any of you notice how, as she headed back to the holding room with her good news, Tatiana seemed to be taking a cue from some off-camera crew member, and suddenly began to make her reality a little more, um, heightened?

Either way, I have to admit I chuckled when Tatiana arrived in the decision room wearing Paula’s QVC bracelet. And I also have to hand her the award for most amusing quote of the night: ”I’m gonna prove it to every guy who told me I had to sleep with him to get my album out. This is for all of you.” That said, the only way she sticks around to the top 12 is if the Fox ad department gets the brilliant idea to sell contestant sponsorships, and the makers of Zoloft, Paxil, and the common horse tranquilizer engage in a bidding war over Ms. Del Toro that makes her presence in the competition too valuable to deny her a wild-card spot.

My safest bets to go home in week one along with that Del Toro chick: Casey Carlson, Stevie Wright, Michael Sarver and Brent Keith. I might eat these predictions seven days from now, but no matter how gorgeous or talented Casey is, and no matter how awesome her chunky wooden necklace was tonight, the judges have already saddled her with a huge deficit by showing her completely whiff on her lyrics during Hollywood Week. That’s not the kind of dazzling first impression you want to make to the majority of Americans who don’t already know your previous work as a swimsuit model for Campus Girls USA. Stevie, meanwhile, is young and cute and ultimately forgettable. In fact, the only thing I can remember about her audition was that she wore a cow-print blouse.

Michael and Brent, meanwhile, would both stand better chances to crack the top 12 if they weren’t performing during the same week, and thereby splitting the country-male vote. Of the two, Michael’s scored more screen time — and his working-dad status might score some sentimental votes in this crappy economy — but Brent (who dropped the ”Smith” at the end of his name) has the slightly more commercial package*. (*Not a reference to my colleague Jessica Shaw’s complaint on a recent Idolatry episode that Brent wears his jeans two sizes too small.)

With those five out of the way, I think we’ll end up with three women fighting for one finalist spot, and four men fighting for the remaining two positions next Tuesday.

The key women to watch next week include: Alexis Grace, Jackie Tohn, and Anne Marie Boskovich. We got to hear a little more singing from Alexis this week, and her ”Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was done right indeed, even if the aggressive pink streaks in her hair and her white leopard top were more appropriate for Gwen Stefani or Pink, circa 1999. We didn’t hear any additional singing from Anne Marie or Jackie, but since both have received significantly more screen time than Alexis in previous episodes, I’d say that was just a matter of leveling the playing field so that the best woman might win. Jackie certainly seems to be angling for this year’s Spirit of Janis Joplin Award (stripped from Amanda Overmyer after she assaulted ”Carry On Wayward Son” last year), but based on your message board comments, I’d say Anne Marie has a bigger fan base as of right now. Given the strength of next week’s male counterparts, though, I highly doubt more than one woman will be smiling next Wednesday night.

At that time, the male contenders for week one should boil down to: Anoop Desai, Danny Gokey, Stephen Fowler, and Ricky Braddy. And really, it’s going to be tough to upend those first two guys. Anoop was shown tonight nailing his group performance of ”What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” and what’s more, four out of five survey participants (in my imagination) think it’s more fun to shout ”Anoop!” than the name of any other season 8 semifinalist. Danny, meanwhile, has scored more screen time, displayed not one but two of the most dramatic backstories (tragic death of young wife; sad last-minute ouster of best buddy Jamar Rogers), and generally proven to be a stronger vocalist than most of his male competitors to date. Still, if Stephen’s nerves don’t do him in like they did in Hollywood Week, or if Ricky proves to be the next coming of Jason Castro, it’s possible Danny or Anoop could be left holding out for a wild card. (Hey, that scenario didn’t end so badly for Clay Aiken.)

And on that note, let’s end the speculation about next week’s showdowns and take a few minutes to reminisce about tonight’s Mansion of Sing-Offs — now with 50 percent more shrubbery, and no Elevator of Doom!

Personally, I didn’t mind the sing-off concept, but I think it would’ve played more dramatically had both singers been forced to stand side-by-side and belt, and if the judges had been forced to vote for their pick right in front of the contestants (and we’d seen how they decided). I realize that might sound a little sadistic, especially in the case of two sweet kids like Cody Sheldon and Alex Wagner-Trugman (how sweet was it seeing them prop each other up as they returned to the holding room?), but it wouldn’t be any more cruel than privately railing against Kristen McNamara’s physical attributes, then playing them back for 25 million viewers.

Kristen’s triumph over Jenn Korbee (apparently the star of something called a HI-5) was one of the few moments in the history of, well, ever, that Paula and Kara made considerably more sense than Simon. To be fair, Jenn’s rendition of ”Not Ready to Make Nice” was perfectly serviceable, though not the least bit inventive. Kristen, meanwhile, took the hard-used ”I Will Always Love You” and changed it up in an interesting and pretty way. True, her three-tone hair, denim mini, blue top, black sweatshirt, and aqua and brown boots proved to be a cacophonous combo, but one of the great things about Idol has always been the fact that America is considerably less shallow than your average record exec. So sorry, Simon, the ”very attractive blonde girl” will have to go back to her job on a children’s TV show, while the other attractive blonde (who just needs a little TLC from the show’s styling team) can rest easy that her fate is in our hands, not yours.

And one more point of disagreement I had with Simon tonight: Jesse Langseth’s choice of Nikka Costa’s ”Like a Feather” for her sing-off with Frankie Jordan? Totally awesome. No offense Mr. Cowell, but sometimes it’s nice to see a contestant break it down on something a little more bluesy and contemporary than, say, ”Unchained Melody.” What’s more, after watching Jesse’s scorchin’ audition take on ”The First Cut Is the Deepest,” I’m thinking she’s looking like a serious contender, not someone with no chance to win, as the cranky Brit declared. Then again, Simon’s entire demeanor was foul during the Jesse-Frankie sing-off. I’m not sure if the dude had just read a bad review of a Leona Lewis record or what, but I couldn’t understand his cruelty to Frankie after her ouster, declaring, ”Frankie, if it’s any consolation, you wouldn’t have won anyway.” Yikes!

Then again, maybe Simon was grouchy that NORMAN FREAKIN GENTLE advanced to the season 8 semifinals (apparently on the wings of Paula’s faerie friends, Kara’s keen eye for talent, and the puddle of drool on Randy’s shirt), while poor Jamar Rogers was reduced to B-reel for his buddy Danny’s ”Idol Journey Package,” despite what all previous footage had led us to believe was a strong (if not particularly subtle) run during Hell Week. As Norman declared that his advance to Idol‘s top 36 was unbelievable — especially considering he’s essentially been auditioning for America’s Got Talent — Simon managed to sum up everything I was feeling in three simple words: ”Yes it is.”

On that note, what did you think of tonight’s two-hour telecast? How do you feel about the post-show news that Joanna Pacitti won’t get to play the role of America’s ”semi-pro” punching bag, now that she’s been booted from the show and replaced by Felicia Barton? Were you at all moved by that interview with Nathaniel Marshall’s grandmother? Why do you think the show’s producers are so dead-set against us hearing any singing from the incredibly gorgeous Jeanine Vailes? Were there any other moments (either mentioned here or not) that either thrilled or disgusted you? And finally, how do you think the season 8 semifinalists stack up against last year’s? Holla back in the comments section, and if you have a thought you’d like to share on the next Idolatry, send it in an email (along with a daytime phone number) to idolatry@ew.com.

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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