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'American Idol' Tracker: A chaotic Neil Diamond night

April 30, 2008 |  2:45 am

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)

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