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'American Idol': The top 24 walk the Green Mile

February 14, 2008 |  7:39 am

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It will be February 2009 before America again experiences suspense like it did tonight. In the next 12 months, our nation will choose its next president; endure triumph, tragedy and, as seems likely today, a recession at home and abroad; crown an Academy Award winner; and live through the Olympics gymnastics competition. We will proclaim new heroes and mourn the passing of beloved friends. And none of it will compare to the drama and tension of "American Idol’s" final judgment episode.

The episode is known to the "Idol" crew as the Green Mile, comparing the walk each contestant must take to hear his or her fate to the fabled last walk of those on death row. On this one harrowing night a year, "Idol" has constructed an hour of television in which drama is stripped down to its essentials and held steady in the blistering glare of the klieg lights.

There is no singing to distract from the angst on Green Mile night, no touching video packages -– we simply spend an hour watching as one by one each contestant rides an elevator, trudges across a vast auditorium floor and sits alone before the judges to hear whether, having emerged from 100,000 to the top 50, they are about to be tossed back into the anonymous swamp where they have vainly toiled their entire lives or whether they are to enter history as one of Season 7's 24.

As Simon tells one contestant about her singing career, “It’s safe to assume that if we say no at this stage it’s pretty much over.”

So with the stakes being their entire lives, we get to revel in the specter of a solid hour of people enduring the tensest moments they will ever know, the heights of joy and the depths of despair to follow. “This is probably the worst day of my life. I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life now. Oh my God,” is how one rejected contestant succinctly described the experience.

Simply put, in contemporary society, there is no currency more valuable than fame. Power, money, sex, respect -– all pale before its white heat. The Green Mile episode is the gateway to fame, or as close a shot at it as anything can offer.

This is not some rinky-dink island relay race show with a piddly after-taxes cash prize waiting at the end, or a crypto-soap opera partner hunt dangling a very dubious shot at love everlasting. The prize on the line, even if you just make it halfway from this point, is the purest substance yet discovered, as testified by Clarkson, Aiken, Underwood, Daughtry, et al. as they sat in these seats in their turn. The contestants truly stand at St. Peter’s gates, their fates weighed in the balance. And what could make for a better hour of television?

(Actually, making it past this point doesn’t quite guarantee them a shot at anything yet. History has shown that many can parlay a stint in the top 12 to stardom, but 13th–24th-place finishes remain a guaranteed ticket to Palookaville.)

Notable in this episode were the different ways the judges string out the pain. Paula plays a mischievous game for the yeses, recounting each step of their journeys before breaking the news. Randy takes the approach of asking each one, “How do you think you did?” and nodding as they are forced to deliver stammering pretty-good-I-thinks. Simon, while he has their attention, delivers mini-lectures, warning them to work harder in the real competition or they’ll be out in no time.

None however, match the way producer Nigel Lythgoe uses this time when he sits as a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.” During that show's Green Mile episode, Lythgoe brilliantly uses the moment when he has each contestant's pure attention, all bravado stripped away as they await their fate, to rake them over the coals, flaying them within an inch of their lives about their various arrogances and bad habits. As harrowing as "Idol’s" Green Mile hour is, by not following Lythgoe’s lead the judges leave just a few precious ounces of drama untapped.

But saving the most dramatic for nearly the last, toward the end of the hour the news was broken to Atlanta homeless boy Josiah Lemming that he was being sent back to live in his car once again. Despite some uneven performances, the news seemed inexplicable given the high endearment factor he’d built up over his substantial air time and given the fact that a few heretofore barely seen seeming non-entities like Jason Yeager slipped through into the guys' ranks.

The elimination makes one wonder about one of the darkest corners of the "Idol" operation. Despite the appearance that the Green Mile occurs at the end of Hollywood Week, in fact there are many weeks in between. Hollywood Week was recorded toward the end of 2007 and the Green Mile, sources inform me, was taped in the last few weeks, giving the judges and the "Idol" team a chance to look deep into the backgrounds of all remaining contestants.

When contestants are rejected on the Green Mile, most are simply told, “No, I’m sorry” without explanation, leaving open the possibility that some may have been dismissed after Lord knows what was learned about them. Is it possible that something came up on young Lemming, for instance, that led to his ouster? Or just as likely, was his ouster due to the stated desire of the show this season not to select Sanjayas and focus strictly on finding the strongest possible talents? In the end, Lemming and the tie-wearing politician/singer Kyle both ultimately, despite not-awful voices, looked more like novelty candidates than genuine contenders, and perhaps on what looks to be, just maybe, the strongest talent season in years, they picked the wrong year to be a little too quirky.

My first prediction of the Top 7:
Alaina Whitaker
Carly Smithson
Ramiele Malubay
Michael Johns
Syesha Mercado
Kady Malloy
Colton Berry

-- Richard Rushfield

(Photo courtesy Fox)

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