And then there were four.
As American Idol gets down to its final quartet of competitors this week, it's a far different field than fans would have expected, even a few weeks ago. Who would have expected the two guys most likely to be one-note wonders — eccentric heavy metal screamer James Durbin and 16-year-old country crooner Scotty McCreery — would find ways to reinvent themselves time and again while glossier competitors faltered?
And at a time when Idol voters have seemed more antifemale than ever, kicking off five women in succession before the first male singer was let go, plucky blonds Haley Reinhart and Lauren Alaina are still "in it to win it," as jive-talking judge Randy Jackson might say.
I'm predicting here that McCreery and Durbin will be the two finalists, despite the show's shameless, scale-tilting favoritism toward Reinhart in recent weeks (I think they got spooked by the long stretch of female ejections).
McCreery probably will win the whole thing, especially given that he never has been in the show's bottom three. Of course, my prediction automatically jinxes him, because I've never correctly picked an Idol winner this far out (sorry, Scotty!).
A McCreery win also would continue Idol's habit of picking safe, unassuming guys for the top prize, an ironic turn since music's biggest iconoclast, Lady Gaga, is set to serve as a mentor this week and perform the next.
Still, there are some lessons to be learned about TV's biggest singing show, now that we're nearly through an amazing season where Idol producers pulled a program on the verge of irrelevance back from the brink.
Relentless positivity has ruined the judges' credibility: What felt like a breath of fresh air three months ago has taken on the air of Hollywood phoniness. In other words, when every performance is greeted with compliments, then real achievement means nothing. Praising contestants unless they completely self-destruct turns the judges' comments into an empty, boring exercise — something departed star Simon Cowell knew all too well.
Late in the game, the mentors aren't helping much: Last week, Sheryl Crow seemed more interested in jamming with the contestants than coaching them, and competitors like Casey Abrams and Durbin have had their biggest moments onstage by disregarding advice from record label executive/coach Jimmy Iovine and doing what feels right. It just proves what artists always have known: If producers and record executives could create pop stars on their own, they wouldn't need a show like American Idol.
Good TV trumps good performances: Durbin's vocal performances were questionable last week. But his emotional reaction to the Badfinger ballad Without You was the most compelling bit of television aired on Idol that night. Above all, Idol remains a TV show, and singers who can make magic onscreen perform ahead of better vocalists who don't (Pia Toscano, that one was for you).
The journey still matters: McCreery's transformation from shy, unassuming country prodigy to a swaggering, self-assured singer comfortable on TV's biggest stage is the kind of progression that makes Idol voters swoon. On a show so pointedly focused on turning unknowns into stars, the singer who comes closest to living that dream onstage usually wins the whole nine yards.
Quinn stands by his guns
You expect a standup comic willing to crack jokes about how Muslims prostrate themselves to pray (It's "like they're expecting an explosion") to be fearless. But spend some time talking with former Saturday Night Live cast member Colin Quinn, and you realize one reason this comic has struggled so much is because he insists on being that oddest duck: a white guy who talks with brutal abandon about race and culture.
Quinn, right, who said he has lost potential sitcom deals over his insistence on wanting to write a show about race, explains it this way: "This country needs therapy racially, and I feel like the one place people have always done that is with TV, except with race. They won't do it, probably because they don't know how to do it and make it entertaining or because they're afraid of what they're gonna say or who they're gonna offend or what they're gonna find out about themselves. That's always been my dream, to do a show like that. (TV executives) only get scared."
Me: They seem very cynical about what people will watch.
Quinn: "That cynicism that they have about what people will watch is masquerading their cowardice because (they) don't have the chops to … say the truth. You don't have the chops to make that show. Don't tell me what people will watch 'cause guess what? People don't wanna watch this (bleep) you're putting out there. You're the lowest common denominator, too."
I have to ask, what do you think of SNL now?
Quinn: "I think the show now is going through the end of a great era; the writing is starting to fall off. But this cast is as good as any cast ever. … I mean, Kristen Wiig blows up and Fred Armisen, he does Gadhafi for two seconds, it's funny. When you look at the history of the show, that's all anybody ever had was sporadic, great inspirational (bleep), you know? I mean, that's part of the charm of the show."
If you go
Colin Quinn, whose Jerry Seinfeld-produced Broadway show Long Story Short is now airing on HBO, appears at 9 p.m. Friday at the Club at Treasure Island, 400 Treasure Island Causeway. Tickets are $30. (727) 367-4511.