Spoilers for "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I review the future...
How much do I love Paula Abdul right now? Her complete mental breakdown in the middle of this chaotic, ineptly-designed episode, was the highlight of an otherwise bland hour. When she started critiquing Jason Castro's second song before he even sang it, and it took Randy and Ryan a good 30 seconds to realize what she was doing... live TV, ladies and gentlemen!
The beauty of Paula's brain spasm is that it illustrates just how scripted and ill-informed the judges' comments are. No doubt she had scribbled some notes in advance, either based on the dress rehearsal (when, as we know, the performances never quite match up to what happens on the live show) or on the advice of Anne Heche's alter ego Celestia, or on Paula's memories of a conversation she once had with Keanu Reeves while filming the video for "Rush, Rush," and it just didn't occur to her that Mr. Castro had only sung one song at that point in the show.
And it became clear that Pauler's not the only judge whose comments are prepared in advance of the live show, or else Randy, for instance, might have pointed out that strangled cat note in the middle of David Archuleta's performance of "America" instead of raving about how comfortable our young presumptive winner seemed on stage.
Given the utter uselessness of two-thirds of our judges, I thought that not having them immediately critique the first performances would be an improvement. A half-hour of "Idol" that was completely Randy-free? Sign me up, I thought. But the first half of the show didn't flow at all well without them, and it only played up how brief each song is. I know Fox has been doing market research about ways to change the show next year, and one of the questions asks whether viewers think the judges get too much airtime, but this was too big an over-correction. I think the solution is to get better judges, not to shove them out of the way to help squeeze 10 performances into an episode that still had time for the padding of Neil Diamond's mentorship, two soft drink-sponsored Seacrest-erviews, etc.
And if I'm going on so much about the judges, it's because "the most talented group of finalists ever" once again gave us a pretty underwhelming show. I would have thought that the diversity of the Diamond catalog -- and its adaptability to limited voices like Jason and Brooke -- would have led to something good, but other than a couple of performances in the back half, it was just as dull and forgettable as every other graybeard theme this season.
In fact, I cared so little for most of these performances that I'm going to talk about each person's two songs together, rather than going 1-5, then 1-5 again. In order...
Jason Castro, "Forever in Blue Jeans" & "September Morn": Again, this theme should have been in Jason's comfort zone, but it mainly just gave him an excuse to hide within his three-note range (or, in the latter song, one-note), let the string section make him seem more impressive than he actually was, and hope that his smile and dimples would carry the rest. "Forever in Blue Jeans" wasn't bad as a bit of busking (and damn/thank you, Simon, for making me unable to see Jason as anything but Glen Hansard at the end of "The Commitments"), but he wasn't even trying on "September Morn." Maybe he was just freaked out by Paula's psychic criticism?
David Cook, "I'm Alive" & "All I Need Is You": I also figured big David would knock this one out of the park, but while he was arguably the best of the night, there wasn't anything particularly memorably by his own pre-established standards. "I'm Alive" reminded me of his first few semi-finals performances, before he realized that he needed to stand out by rearranging these oldies in a contemporary alt-rock way. (He also struggled to be heard over the band for the first time all season.) "All I Need Is You" sounded more like the post-makeover Cook, but I can think of at least three or four performances of his that were clearly better. Also, I don't know the song at all, and am only judging based on a 30-second iTunes snippet, but it didn't sound to me like David re-arranged the song as dramatically as Simon tried to suggest.
Brooke White, "I'm a Believer" & "I Am, I Said": Brooke's take on The Monkees' signature hit was every bit the disaster Simon proclaimed it to be. No one should look as terrified -- even with a smile plastered across her face -- as Brooke looked throughout this up-tempo, campy number. Like Jason's second number, the degree of vocal difficulty was almost nil, and yet I kept worrying that Brooke was going to burst into tears at any moment. "I Am, I Said" was a vast improvement, both in terms of the actual singing and her showcasing vulnerability in a way that didn't make me fearing for her emotional well-being. Neil's suggested lyric change from New York City to Arizona didn't exactly work for a song about bi-coastal blues, but I doubt Brooke understood the lyrics any more than she has for the rest of the season. Like Syesha, the emotions she displays are contrived; she just fakes them more plausibly.
David Archuleta, "Sweet Caroline" & "America": David badly needed to do some more uptemp songs -- the last non-ballad he sang was in the first week of the semis -- and yet he found a way to turn "Sweet Caroline" into another inspirational tune about the importance of touching other people and being touched in return. Even with the faster pace, it's amazing how much it resembled every other Archuleta performance. As for "America," I mentioned the cat strangling already, but I'll give him credit for doing something that didn't remind me of all his previous performances. Maybe I was just dazzled by the American flag display and him doing the "My Country 'Tis of Thee" portion of the lyrics, or maybe I just hypnotized myself into imagining the song as sung by Michael or Carly if they were still around, but at least it didn't put me to sleep.
Syesha Mercado, "Hello Again" & "Thank the Lord for the Night Time": Having discovered last week that she's much better when she indulges her theatrical side -- not that it helped her with the voters -- Syesha acts her way through a sensitive ballad, then a soul-spiritual joint. Her "Hello Again" was technically good but left me cold, but I quite enjoyed her "Thank the Lord for the Night Time." Again, Syesha never lets you forget that she's playing a character -- in this case, a young Aretha/Tina type -- but when the song is this fast-paced and feel-good, it becomes less bothersome.
Best of the night: Again, David Cook, but that's as damning with faint praise as Randy and Simon's "that could have been in a play" comments for Syesha's second performance.
In danger: Every previous season when they did a Top 5 show (not counting last year, when we got two Top 6's), the person singing second went home. But I don't expect Cook to go anywhere -- if Jordin could survive the "going first on top 3 night" curse, he should be fine. Even though she was probably second-best, I'm afraid for Syesha. I still don't think she has much of a fanbase, and she wasn't so brilliant as to overcome all the Brooke, Jason and Archie die-hards. I suppose the death slot could claim Jason, or the voters could decide to put Brooke out of her misery. All I know is that the Davids ain't going anywhere.
What did everybody else think?