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'American Idol' Tracker: A chaotic Neil Diamond night

Davidarchuleta The Idoldome was a colder, emptier place Tuesday night than it had been a mere week ago, when the most electrifying singer in "American Idol" history, Carly Smithson, still walked among us.  In the life of every "Idol" partisan, sooner or later this day must come when one must look defeat dead in the eye and search for new reasons to keep faith in the system. 

In the end, democracy cannot be just a way to force one’s own candidate into office; the means must be more important than our individual ends and, bitter though it may be, the will of the electorate must be embraced.  Were it not for American Idol, one must recall, we would have never known Carly Smithson at all. However, taking my seat in the Carly-less Idoldome, I recounted the words of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert in his Elegy of Fortinbras, when he wrote, putting words in the mouth of Hamlet’s sole survivor,

“Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial”

In the event, cold apple in my hand astride my narrow chair in the upper tiers, it proved to be an interesting night for moving on and seeking closure, doing so on the night of what Simon Cowell called “the strangest show we’ve ever done.”  I am not sure how much of this came across on television, but in the Idoldome events were, even by the roaring circus atmosphere of the tapings, fairly frenetic, or as Simon termed it, “chaotic.”

The show started out in relative calm.  All three judges got to their chairs with over a minute to airtime to spare -– a rare feat of late. The hardest shows "Idol" has to put on, however, are the ones where they are forced to squeeze some number greater than half a dozen performances into an hour.  At the season’s opening, when they have 12 performances to get through, they have two hours of airtime to spread out in.  However, at this point, when Fox confines the show to one meager hour on Tuesday nights and they begin to double up two songs per contestant, the result is necessarily a show so crowded that it will barely have room to suck in an ounce of fetid oxygen to sustain itself.  Considering an hour of programming equals approximately 44 minutes of airtime, minus the opening credits, introducing the judges, introducing the mentor, you are left with about 39 minutes to be divided 10 ways, with each slot having to contain the song, the judges' reactions, Ryan reading the phone numbers and a handful of banter between Ryan and the contestants.  That is a lot to fit in in three minutes, and clearly the Neil Diamond episode strained to fit it all in, making the tough call to sacrifice the judging on the first round.

Unfortunately, that decision seemed hardest on at least one of the judges.  During the Diamond introductory video package, Executive Producer/overlord Nigel Lythgoe came to the stage and seemed to be explaining something of some urgency to Ryan Seacrest and stage manager Debbie Williams.  He then raced to the judges' table and conveyed whatever the news was in a particularly animated fashion.  I can only guess that he was at this point breaking the news that they would not be judging the first round.  For Judge Abdul, this news must have rang some alarm bells for fears of forgetting the performances by the time she would have to speak out on them, because Lythgoe left the table and returned moments later with a notepad and pen for Paula.  Unfortunately, as events would prove, whatever presentiment that led Judge Abdul to believe she might need extra support proved prophetic as it came to what I can only describe as the most awkward moment I’ve experienced in my visits as, from my vantage point, Paula seemed to be just reading through her notes and read into the notes she had taken on David Cook, thinking they were Jason’s second song without stopping to recall he had only sung once at that point.

Likewise unfortunate, skipping the first round of judging underscored, for all its flaws, miscues, and, as we saw tonight, jaw-dropping gaffes, how essential that the judging ceremony still is to the show. After Hollywood week the judges have no formal effect on the results of the show, merely offering their non-binding comments for the audience to embrace or dispose of.  Nonetheless the judging is, for much of the audience, the prism through which we view the entire show. For better or worse depending on how you feel about each judge, the judging ceremony is what cues the audience in to how they are supposed to feel about what they just saw –- the technical values with which they may lack the vocabulary to interpret. I know I do.

In my recent interview with Stage Manager Debbie Williams, she recalled what was so different and unique about the show as it first came on the air was the effect of Judge Cowell’s critiques. “Nobody told the truth on television before that,” she succinctly put it. Indeed, no show had had the courage to take its main assets -- its stars, in this case the singers –- and eviscerate them week after week. So much so that the judges became bigger stars than most of the performers, their performances awaited more eagerly than many of the songs, and that the judges panel, anchored by a “mean judge,” became a genre staple, reshaping prime-time television.  And further, the spectacle of seeing these young people with so much at stake thrown to the lions, and judging how they reacted to being judged, became our primary tool to take stock of their characters.

The hurried first half of Neil Diamond night sans judging, sadly, as much as they needed to pack so much into that one hour, was ultimately a ship adrift minus that anchor.  At some point, I also noticed that spinning globe on stage right had stopped revolving.  Next week, no doubt as we near the last lap before the finals, the equilibrium will be restored, perhaps even in the results show when no doubt they will laugh at the foibles of tonight, and the world shall spin around "Idol" again.

Side note:  The big question of this season was whether allowing instruments would make a difference. After Hollywood week, it looked as though their effect might be a wash.  But at this point, we must absolutely say that the inclusion of musical instruments has turned the "American Idol" world on its head and had a monumental effect on the contest. Of the Top 12, 3 1/2 candidates played instruments (Brooke White, David Cook, Jason Castro and sometimes David Archuleta).  Those 3 1/2 are all still on the show.  Further, it is almost impossible to imagine Brooke, Jason and maybe David Cook making it this far without instruments, so central are they to their identities.   Which is perhaps why a candidate like Syesha seems almost a throwback today…  If Diana DeGarmo could see us, would she recognize this brave new world we have wrought?

Final note:  As with each week, I’ll be taking questions in a live chat Wednesday at noon PDT at chat.latimes.com.

- Richard Rushfield
(photo courtesy of Fox)

Comments () | Archives (41)

Try being a little positive.
By the way, Chris Daughtry was two years ago (the year with Taylor Hicks)

You have incorrect information. She was not reading from David Cook´s remarks because she said he was the only one to take Neil Diamonds unknown and outdo everyone with them and also saw him as The American Idol. In so far as not being able to imagine David C without an instrument, half of his performances were without an instrument and last week´s Music of the NIght was unquestionably brilliant without an instrument except his voice. You are slightly biased. If ever there was a competitor who deserved to win it is this young man David Cook. He can arrange a song which is very ordinary into a brilliant upmarket current hit.

Hi My name is Lorna and I am for Toronto Ontario (Canada)
I read you comments and really agree with you that last nights show was weird!
I personally love Paula I think you does have a lot of issues and I personally can relate to her due to her past issues with eating disorders and other issues. I think Paula is on medication and maybe sometimes she may take it not properly. I am only guessing this because I know what medication can make you confused sometimes
Clearly she was not functioning normally. I also believe that Simon knows Paula very well and trys to calm her down and make the show continue and have us viewers confused.
My last comment is I really think that David Cook is so talently he should win or Syesha
My favorite year of American Idol was with Carrie and Chris Daughtry.
I love him so much and me and my husband went to see him and Bon Jovi and Chris is very talented. David Cook reminds me so much of Chris and he will do very well if he does not win. Ryan Seacreast is fun to watch so they should not change hosts.
The show should have been longer but fox chooses not to do that.
Thankyou very much for reading my e-mail ( I hope you Did) and enjoy tonights show and it should be excitng tonight. take care of your self and you really make sense
I wish I could go to American Idol one day but I live in Canada so I guess I have to wait till Canadian Idol starts.
Stay safe and have a great day! Lorna Berenguer Bye

You take it all way too seriously.

Sounds like low blood sugar or a day without your medication, Richard.

I think this just goes to show that the show is not as democratic as some want to believe but that the judges make up their minds even before a given week's show is taped. Is there any doubt that Paula would have said EXACTLY what she seems to have scripted out before the show no matter how well or poorly David's performance? That he hadn't even sung his second song yet clearly demonstrates the bias of the judges. Whether or not they influence the public voting much is up for debate, but it is certainly more than no effect.

Last night, ladies and gentlemen, American Idol officially jumped the shark.

I think that Paula's comments were scripted, and that she just forgot where to stop reading...Oops!

I agree with your assesment of the performances without the judging--a ship without an anchor. Both "Idol" and "Dancing With The Stars" force their contestents into a duel battle once a season and on both shows, both performances are lacking.

Your take on "Idol" is awfully serious at times but I like it and wonder what you would write about "Survivor" if you were blogging about that program!

Emotionally, I'd love to see Brooke win. I used to love David A. but he bores me now. David Cook doesn't strike an emotional chord with me but he is definitely the whole package and mature enough to handle all that goes with being the "Idol". Syesha belongs in theatre. That's not a slam.. She's mighty talented but the stage is her venue. And Jason....his time is up. He has a lot to offer but he is not the "American Idol".

I can't seem to get over that Carly is gone, its like the season is over for me. I've written many posts about it at idolexpose dot com, gotten many replies, but I just can't get over it...I was so attached to her winning, I can't believe whe is not singing next week.

Audrey: David did not arrange the songs he was applauded so loud for.."Elenor Ribdy" and "Billie jean" ......he did arrange "Little Sparrow" but he is still very close to Dolly's version...He does have a knack for going online and finding obscure versions of the songs he does...but you still have to give him props,,,he does have a good if not great voice and he is cute..so I think he will win...unless David A. picks up his perfromance which lacks the imspiration it had in the beginning...Jason is the most unique style we have ever had on Idol and I will buy his CD even before the others. Brooke has a beautiuful voice but American Idol type songs just don't let her show what she can do...., but like most great artist, she is emeotional and delicate so will not last to the end....I will buy her CD too. Syeasha....not my taste, too dramatic..she'll go to Broadway...look out Tamara Grey..

Paula also called Syesna, Brook at the end of the show. Simon looked dumfounded.

Paula often watches the dress rehearsals on the day of the show, when the director is blocking out the stage action. (When Idol shows the clips of each singer's performance at the end of the Tuesday show, those clips come from the dress rehearsals, not the on-air performances.)

Remember how she told Michael Johns that she liked his dress rehearsal version of "A Day in the Life" better than the on-air version.

My guess is Paula was recalling Jason's dress rehearsal from early Tuesday. Not saying that's bright. But it's the most likely explanation.

Your version of events that it was an innocent mix-up on Paula's part sounds like the Fox party line instead of what really happened: a window into the fact that the show is fixed. Paula was reading notes based on the dress rehearsal because given her visible symptoms of addiction to pills and/or booze she likely wouldn't have time to match her usual incoherent feedback. Stop taking this show so seriously and provide honest criticism.

How can her negative comments on Jason be for David Cook who she praised. It is bad enough we know now the judges pre-conceive their cricitism, but don't take the public for fools and then try and humiliate us. She was given the paper by Nigel with his critiques on them, when did she write these notes?

Plain and simple David Cook is the clear leader. He has consistently outshone his fellow competitors and his talent for re-composing songs is unmatched on this show or any other. His versatility of style from singing country with Dolly, to "Music of the Night" to Rock to capturing the soul of a little known Neil Diamond tune equally unmatched from all the contestants.

From songwriting to vocal skill to experience to vocal maturity, David C is obvious choice to win this season.

David A was is clearly a great raw talent, but still vocally immature in his development. Last night, for the first time he sounded like a child in an adult competition. I think he got exposed a bit for what he is... a great singer but in need of strong vocal guidance and performance skills

Colleen and Eve...both totally on the money. I'm with you guys.

Richard's grammar lesson of the day:

The past participle of the infinitive "to ring" is RUNG not RANG therefore your sentence (below) should have read "...this news must have rung..."

"For Judge Abdul, this news must have rang some alarm bells for fears of forgetting the performances by the time she would have to speak out on them, because Lythgoe left the table and returned moments later with a notepad and pen for Paula."

I think everyone is missing the obvious.

Paula had obviously watched the earlier dress rehearsal and had already seen both songs from all of the contestants. Amidst the confusion of being asked to sum up on the fly on a tightly timed show, I'm pretty sure she was commenting on the earlier performance which was not broadcast. (But as was in the news recently - the dress rehearsal performances are used in the show recap clips.)

Cut Paula a break. Live TV ain't always pretty.

What amazes me is that this show is still on the air. I stopped watching it after the first season and indeed to this day Kelly Clarkson (even in Simon's opinion) is the most sucessful of the AI winners. Anyway, I really wonder what kind of nerds still find this show interesting....it says a lot about the declining intelligence level of our population.

Poorly written article, it looks like it was written by a 13 year old.

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