Hollywood Week narrows the pack down to 24, and our ''Idol'' expert lists who's a shoo-in for the final 12, who could be a spoiler, and who's a likely train wreck
American Idol

”American Idol” recap: Rating the top 24

The top 24 contestants of American Idol‘s seventh season are off and running — even though four of them are basically trapped in the starting gate. In typical inexplicable fashion, the show’s producers managed to get through four looong weeks of auditions and three whole hours of Hollywood Week without letting us hear a single note from Jason ”Dreadlocks” Castro, Luke ”Stubbly” Menard, Garrett ”Shaggy” Haley, and Jason ”Blond Patch” Yeager. Might I suggest that if none of these dudes crack the top 12, they form a vocal quartet and call themselves Cannon Fodder?

Seriously, though, while I hate to write off these guys before they’ve had a chance to make an impression beyond their controversial grooming choices, it’s worth noting that out of last year’s top 12, 11th-place finisher Stephanie Edwards was the only one who hadn’t scored significant screen time prior to the semifinals. In other words, while we’ve now reached the ”power to the people!” portion of the competition, Nigel Lythgoe and his minions have already stuffed the ballot box.

On the other hand, it’s not over till the confetti rains down from the Kodak ceiling onto the head of a misty-eyed vocalist singing about dreams coming true, parental pride, belief in a higher power, true love, or, preferably, all of the above. Season 6 champ Jordin Sparks, after all, wasn’t considered a serious front-runner till at least a week or two into the finals, when she mesmerized the judges with a ballad from A Land Before Time. (Forgive my digression, but I write this while listening to a repeat loop of LaKisha Jones’ ”This Ain’t a Love Song” and Melinda Doolittle’s ”Have a Nice Day.” Bon Jovi night, what hast thou wrought?)

So how, at this early point in the competition, does one separate the Carrie Underwoods and Bo Bices from the Joseph Murenas and Janay Castines? (Click here to watch Janay hilariously redefine the phrase ”deer in the headlights.”) This season, it’s going to be harder than ever. For starters, the talent pool appears to be as deep as it is even. And second, no contestant has achieved an early breakout moment on the level of, say, Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis’ mesmerizing Hollywood Week group performance of ”How Deep Is Your Love.”

Not that any of that is going to stop me from diving into the murky season 7 waters and making some bold guesses about which singers will make the final 12. (I hope you’ll do the same on the message boards as well.) So without further ado, let’s start with…

The Sure Things Make no mistake: As someone who thinks the minimum age requirement for Idol contestants should be raised to 18, I’m not (yet) on the David Archuleta bandwagon. But if you’re willing to admit the kid has already proven he’s a better vocalist than previous finalists Sanjaya Malakar, Kevin Covais, and John Stevens (adorable moppets all of ’em), it’s hard to imagine an Archuleta-free finals. Hey, don’t forget that Alvin and the Chipmunks raked in over $200 million at the U.S. box office; cute and cuddly goes a long way in this country. As do big biceps paired with Australian accents (see Jackman, Hugh; Urban, Keith), which is why Michael Johns is an inevitable finalist too, even if I didn’t find his ”Bohemian Rhapsody” quite as rapturous as the judges.

On the ladies’ side, I’m betting on the A team of Amanda Overmyer and Asia’h Epperson. The former’s understated response when the judges sent her to the top 24 — ”I appreciate it” — was a refreshing change of pace from the parade of sobs we endured all evening, and although Simon was right in calling for more ”light and shade” in the rock & roll nurse’s performances, I can’t wait to hear her wrap her rasp around a show tune or a country ditty. Asia’h, meanwhile, won me over tonight with the standing O’s she gave to her fellow contestants as they emerged triumphant from the Elevator of Doom. (Calculated? Perhaps. Sweet? Undoubtedly.) Plus, any songbird who serves up Rose Royce’s ”I’m Going Down” instead of another overcooked Celine-Whitney soufflé is someone worth having in the competition. Yet while I’m willing to stake my reputation on Little David, Michael, Amanda, and Asia’h, all four are going to have to be in peak form if they want to keep ahead of…

NEXT: Producers’ pets

The Serious Contenders If I had to add four more contestants to my Most Likely to Make the Finals list, I’d choose Chikezie Eze, David Cook, Kristy Lee Cook, and Carly Smithson. (Hey, that’s two Cooks and three Davids in the top 24! Most inconvenient!)

The producers seemed hell-bent on limiting Chikezie’s screen time this week to random shots of the guy triumphantly pumping his fist and lingering congenially backstage, but I still haven’t forgotten how he turned ”All the Woman I Need” into the musical equivalent of a Red Velvet cupcake. (Plus, dude has a righteous pop-star moniker.) David, meanwhile, reminded me a little of Michael C. Hall (of Showtime’s Dexter) when he showed up for his final judgment in a gray vest and a bright pink tie, and while his persona sometimes borders on somnambulant, he’s taken more smart risks with his song arrangements than any other hopeful this season.

Kristy Lee and Carly, meanwhile, share a common strength that should give them an edge over many of their opponents. No, not inherent talent (although both seem to have it). And I’m not talking about the benefit of experience from having scored major-label record deals earlier in their careers (though that won’t hurt, either). Rather, both women hit the jackpot in the screen-time sweepstakes. It feels like there hasn’t been a moment of Carly’s Idol journey that the producers have neglected to show us; indeed, Paula’s game of emotional water torture while informing Carly of the judges’ final decision was the night’s most emotionally draining moment. And the way Kristy Lee gets such loving lighting and close-ups every time she’s on screen, it’s a wonder she hasn’t already landed a side gig as an Ivory girl. Still, if any of my current top eight begin to underperform, they could fall victim to…

The Possible Spoilers As much as I loved David Hernandez’s ”Love the One You’re With” on Tuesday, I did have a brief sense that the guy might turn out to be Rudy Cardenas 2.0, and Simon’s warning that he’ll have to work harder to have ”a remote chance of winning” is still ringing in my ears as I write this. Then again, who’s to say the season’s third guy named David won’t do exactly as instructed and make a serious run at the title. It’s a good sign that I bust out a laugh every time the congenial contestant tries to get jiggy on camera.

On the ladies’ side, we’ve only gotten brief glimpses of Alexandréa Lushington, Ramiele Malubay, and Kady Malloy, and I wouldn?t be surprised to see one or more of them break out from midpack, even though none has left a particularly powerful impression to date (aside from the feelings of collapse I get every time the judges make a condescending remark about Ramiele’s size — like Paula commenting on her ”little teeny body” and Simon calling her a ”sweet little thing”). Then again, a step backward for David H., Alexandréa, Ramiele, or Kady would put them at risk of falling into a group I like to refer to as…

NEXT: Sanjaya alert!

The Possible Train Wrecks Okay, you know this list begins and ends with Danny Noriega. I mean, I have to give three snaps up to the judges for not being afraid to cast a young male contestant who could probably outpoint, outpose, and outsashay RuPaul in a battle of the boy divas. But to my ears, Danny’s big voice has a lack of maturity and control that is probably not going to translate well to Idol‘s big stage. As for fellow semifinalist Robbie Carrico, why does Ryan Seacrest keep introducing the guy as a ”rocker”? Long hair, a beard, and a knit cap does not necessarily indicate the return of Kurt Cobain.

I’m also not getting the judges’ love for quavery-voiced Brooke White. To date, she’s sung what’s sounded like a total of four notes, and even worse, tonight we got to see her admit to ”stalling” — or as I’d call it, ”messing up” — as she played the piano on Carole King’s ”Beautiful” during Hollywood Week. Sure, Brooke seems like a sweetheart with that big, broad smile of hers; I just know deep down it’s all going to end with the child-care provider sobbing into a wall, just as she did before her final judgment tonight. Hey! Nobody puts the babies’ nanny in the corner!

Oh, and while we’re talking tears, I suppose this is as good a time as any to discuss the elimination of Josiah Leming, which you could pretty much see coming the minute the kid declared, ”I think they’re gonna put me through.” Although I imagine all the crying and the tremulousness and the faux British accent would’ve worked my last nerve had Josiah made it to the top 24, it all somehow felt a little too cruel the way the judges kept him around after his wobbly ”Stand by Me” on Tuesday, only to cut him tonight. It’s as if the show’s producers had decided they would just squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until they’d gotten the last bits of pulp and backstory and drama out of Josiah, and then had casually tossed his spent rind to the side. Then again, in a competition where a shoulder squeeze and a ”Work hard, okay, buddy?” from Ryan Seacrest counts as a parting gift, maybe an early exit wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to an emotionally frazzled teenager.

What do you think of the top 24? Who are your surefire picks for the top 12? Were there any contestants you were rooting for (like, say, Colton Swon) who didn’t make the cut? Did anyone else find the final pairings (Colton Berry beating Kyle Ensley and Joanne Borgella beating Cardin McKinney) to be sort of anticlimactic? And was anyone else surprised Fox didn’t find a sponsor for the sandwich Ryan Seacrest was eating during that woeful advertisement for Jumper that opened tonight’s show?

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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