Contestants with backing from the judges and producers rule the day as the first three finalists of season 8 are unveiled

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 18, 2009 at 05:00 PM EST
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It’s official, everyone! Season 8 of American Idol is going to be nothing short of miraculous. Sick folks will be healed at the end of each and every results show. The economy will get rescued during a special Wall Street-themed edition of ”Idol Gives Back.” Randy Jackson will become articulate and concise before the beginning of April. And we’ll have one person to thank: The Robert Downey Jr. look-alike who, based on a single live performance, has been labeled ”the redeemer” and ”the hero” (of season 8 or the planet, it remains to be seen), has been envisioned playing ”sold-out arenas,” and has been charged by no less a social commentator than Kara DioGuardi with the tall order of ”giving us all hope.”

And because it is useless — no! in fact it is strictly verboten to resist him — I have written a song for this very special contestant, set to the tune of Mariah Carey’s ”Hero.” Please give it a listen, or better yet, sing along:

There’s a hero, if you look in the pimp slot

He’s the dude that Kara says can give us hope.

Will he survive? Ryan sure does like to tease us.

He’s the bespectacled Jesus, of season 8.

When Danny Gokey comes along,

The magic lighting gets turned on.

Then loving close-ups, they arrive,

And you know he will survive.

And just like that Anoop is gone.

He should have picked a better song.

And it becomes as clear as day,

The producers got their way.

All right, all right. In all seriousness, it’s not Danny Gokey’s fault that Ken Warwick & Co. love him more than Ford, Coca-Cola, and AT&T combined. But it’s been absolutely bizarre watching the Idol Machine’s early and overzealous campaign on behalf of a contestant who’d most likely have cracked the top 12 without the added help. And what’s worse is that said campaigning is being done at the expense of both the show’s integrity and dramatic resonance.

Take tonight’s results episode, for example. I think all but the most inexperienced Idol viewers knew going into the telecast that Danny was a shoo-in for one of the three finalist slots being awarded. I mean, what other contestant in the first set of 12 had the power to drive Kara to a When Harry Met Sally deli-scene fit by virtue of a soothing, gravelly tone and a few well-placed glory notes? And yet, inexplicably, the producers built the last half-hour of tonight’s show on the suspense-free premise that Danny might’ve gotten fewer votes than Tatiana Del Toro. Or maybe they just wanted to see if giving Tatiana 30 minutes to ponder whether she had a guppy’s chance in a piranha’s tank of beating season 8’s chosen one might drive the mood-swinging songbird to a complete emotional breakdown.

NEXT: Danny vs Tatiana…right

But ponder this for a second: Instead of the ”Danny vs. Tatiana,” ”Michael Sarver vs. Anoop Desai,” and ”Alexis Grace vs. no one” matchups of tonight’s telecast — which yielded only one suspenseful moment over 60 minutes — why didn’t they kick things off by pitting Danny vs. Anoop, then Alexis vs. Tatiana, and finally, for the non-gender specific slot, Michael vs. Ricky Braddy? Those showdowns would not only have created three separate instances of dramatic tension for viewers — ”Whoa, one of the pre-show favorites is about to get axed!” ”OMG! Did America choose the judges’ favorite female or the contestant America can’t stop talking about?” ”Which dark-horse dude won’t need no stinkin’ wild card?” — but would’ve also allowed the hour to unfold under the premise that something unexpected was about to go down, that the conventional wisdom of a Danny-Alexis-Anoop sweep was not gonna happen, dawgs.

Of course, under my results-show restructuring plan, Danny wouldn’t have been able to close the show with an encore of ”Hero,” thereby keeping him as fresh as possible in the minds of voters until he next picks up a mic on March 10. And in the name of Clive Davis, Danny needs every advantage he can get! In fact, while Danny is singing, can we get a closeup of his relatives and friends holding up a picture of the contestant and his deceased wife, just in case any of the viewers at home have forgotten the most emotionally gripping back story in show history?

Oh yes, they went there. They actually went there. And call me cynical, call me cold-hearted, call me a monster at the keyboard, but I did not feel good about them going there. Because the line really should not be all that fine between celebrating the memory a lost loved one and using that loved one’s image as part of a comprehensive get-out-the-vote strategy. And even coming at it from the most un-cynical place possible, I did not feel good about them going there. Let’s say Danny’s posse hadn’t planned in advance to hold up that photo for the cameras. Let’s say that when Danny was announced as a finalist, they were overcome with emotion and got the sudden urge to whip that photo out of a wallet, to reflect on how proud she’d have been of her talented husband, to…allow the Idol camera dude to set up an establishing close-up of the photo before panning out, and then back to Danny? Like I said, I did not feel good about them going there.

Nor did I get international good vibes from the tension/weirdness between Danny and Tatiana as they awaited their fates. Danny said he was ”overwhelmed by the unknown,” and while I don’t believe for a second he expected Tatiana to score the third and final Silver Stool of Safety, that doesn’t mean he was lie-telling. Indeed, Danny probably was ”overwhelmed by the unknown” prospect of what it’ll be like to become a household name. Still, I flinched a little when I saw the look on Danny’s face, just the trace of a dismissive smile that began on the bleachers when Tatiana was rambling about Paula’s jewelry line and ignoring Ryan’s not-so-subtle efforts to embarrass her, and continued as Ryan delivered the final verdict.

Then again, Tatiana was as much to blame for the somewhat frosty body language. Instead of doing the usual ”let’s stand close together and hold hands as we brace for the axe to fall on one of us” stance, Tatiana chose to look off-stage — perhaps toward a monitor — and fuss with her hair. Ever since she first took to my TV screen, I haven’t been able to tell whether Tatiana’s outward desperation to be famous is something she can’t control or a carefully crafted performance. And as she retreated to the bleacher area tonight, pressing her hands to her face and crying into her Paula Abdul ring, I still couldn’t tell if her tears were entirely uncontrollable, or the kind of waterworks that kick in, toddler-style, when it’s clear somebody — anybody — is watching.

NEXT: Michael’s blue-collar stand

Interestingly enough, just like Tuesday night, I thought Danny gave the second-best contestant performance during the results show, thanks to an improved effort by Alexis on ”I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.” (Bonus points to Alexis for copping to being an Idol viewer before she scored a spot on the show!)

Sidebar: One positive of the new Top 36 format is that it’s now the successful singers, and not the evictees, who get to perform encores. And any scenario that spares me the audio-visual assault of Casey Carlson’s ”Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is okay by me.

Back to Alexis, though, who reminds me of a younger, less buxom Patricia Arquette. I’m starting to think the young mom with a penchant for dressing like a mid-80s Madonna wannabe — all she needs are some rubber bracelets, a lace glove, and a giant crucifix — could be a legitimate title contender if her confidence continues to rise. I’d still contend ”Never Loved a Man” is perhaps a little too much meat for Alexis to digest, but when she started riffing tonight, growling her way through ”when you kiss me, I ain’t never,” I got an unexpected chill. Here’s hoping next time around, Alexis picks a number by a less iconic vocalist, something where she can perhaps improve on the original rather than bust a gut trying to match it.

Either way, I don’t think Alexis or Danny have much to worry about, unless President Obama’s new stimulus plan includes a provision to pay text-messaging bills for the blue-collar roughneck’s loyal fans. Michael seems like a genial guy, but his vocals are nowhere close to his two fellow finalists, let alone eliminated contestants like Ricky Braddy and Anoop Desai.

I’ve got to admit, I’m miffed that Simon encouraged voters to rally behind Michael on the basis that he’s the kind of contestant who needs a break, not because he’s an incredibly gifted vocalist. Indeed, the dude’s take on ”I Don’t Want to Be” tonight was actually a downgrade from his Tuesday performance; as Michael gasped for air on the big notes and struggled to stay in tune, it wasn’t hard to imagine poor Ricky cursing the show’s producers for denying him even a few seconds of non-silent airtime during the audition rounds and Hollywood Week. Feel free to argue otherwise, but it’s hard to envision Michael as anything but cannon fodder — especially if he keeps breaking out not-so-funny sound bites, like the one he coughed up tonight about his former co-workers feelings on his Idol run. ”They’re either making fun of me for being a sissy or they’re proud.” Way to bring ”sissy” back to the pop-cultural pantheon, dude. You are hereby sentenced to purchase a copy of Harvey Fierstein’s The Sissy Duckling and read it to your daughter at the earliest possible opportunity!

As it stands, though, Ryan and the judges continue to provide not-so-subtle verbal cues that tell us that a vote for Michael is essentially a vote for struggling workers in a difficult economy. Take last week’s doozy about Michael and welder Matt Breitzke being among the ”hardest-working contestants” in Idol history — because, apparently, there are no lazy blue-collar workers in the world, and anything that would leave dirt under Ryan’s fingernails has got to be onerous. Or tonight’s seriously intoned zinger from the hostbot — ”Michael, this means a lot to you” — because obviously Anoop having a college thesis about southern barbecue means he’s taking the competition oh so casually.

Speaking of Anoop, that had to sting hearing he only missed taking Michael’s silver stool by some 20,000 votes. The good news, though, is that with that information released to the public, he seems like a mortal lock to get a chance to perform on the March 5 Wild Card show. Whether or not he scores one of the three Wild Card positions, though, will probably depend on who shows up that night: Superfly ”My Prerogative” Anoop, or Sleepy R&B Ballad Anoop. Might I suggest dude get it percolatin’ with Mary J. Blige’s ”A Family Affair” to assure himself a spot in the top 12.

NEXT: Wild Card free rides?

As for the night’s other eliminated singers, I’d definitely offer a Wild Card ticket to Ricky, and maybe, maybe, maybe to Ann Marie Boskovich, whose prior performances were good enough to make me think her ”Natural Woman” was an unnatural aberration.

As for the other half-dozen contestants — Brent ”I sang ‘Hick Town!”’ Keith, Stephen ”Keyboard Slam” Fowler, Jackie ”Spandex and Sneaks” Tohn, Casey ”Bust a Move” Carlson, Stevie ”It’s Not Your Song Choice, It’s You” Wright, and Tatiana ”Let’s End the Vicious Cycle” Del Toro — I’m rooting for their return to the Idol stage about as enthusiastically as Joan Crawford would’ve wanted to see a wire hanger sneak back into her closet.

Several of those contestants kept the dream/delusion alive tonight, though. Stevie kept blaming choice of Taylor Swift’s ”You Belong With Me,” which I guess is an acceptable excuse in that Stevie selected a song in which she proved incapable of hitting a single note. Stephen Fowler used selective hearing to infer that the judges only disliked his choice of ”Rock With You,” and not the fact that he performed it with all the snap and muscle of a wet paper towel. ”As long as you can’t say I sounded bad,” he insisted. But you did, dude, you did! And then there was Jackie, proudly insisting she brought the ”head-swingin and high-top shakin”’ on Tuesday, and wisely leaving that silly business of good singing out of the discussion.

It’s interesting contemplating Danny, Alexis, and Michael in comparison to season 7’s deep and quirky talent pool, especially after Michael Johns and Carly Smithson returned to the stage for a rafter-rattling rendition of ”The Letter.” Yeah, I wish they’d been able to perform something different than the groovy Box Tops track that they already covered during the season 7 finale, but both singers looked and sounded magnificent tonight: Carly in her sparkly top, black jacket, and black paneled skirt; Michael in his black and white plaid shirt and black jacket and tie; both of them proving more than capable of nailing a difficult duet that starts at full-throttle and doesn’t let up till the last note’s been played.

Oh, and speaking of Mr. Johns, he’ll be stopping by very soon to HQ and following Melinda Doolittle as the second performer in our 2009 Idolatry concert series. In the interim, if you have any big thoughts on this week in Idol, and would like to be an Idolatry call-in guest, shoot an email to, and be sure to include your daytime phone number.

How did you feel about this week’s results? Did the photo of Danny’s wife bother you, or do I need to get over my cynical self already? Which eliminated contestants would you invite back for the Wild Card show? What did you think of Simon’s description of Kara’s first night at the judges’ panel as ”unprecedented”? And if you could stop only one of these annoying habits of Randy’s, which would you choose: His habit of booing Simon whenever he’s introduced, or his chronic and irritating use of the phrase ”good lookin’ out”?

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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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