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'Idol' Tracker: Archuleta de Triumph

March 19, 2008 |  2:15 am

Davidarchuleta In its opening stages, warfare often takes on strange forms.  While armies poke at each other, feeling about for weaknesses and searching for their best ground, attempts to define the shape of the battle will almost certainly prove illusory -- today’s victory merely setting the stage for tomorrow’s defeat; today’s frontline a sideshow from the main theater of conflict. 

World War II opened with the evacuation of the British and French forces at Dunkirk, an evacuation celebrated as a victory in England, while it allowed Hitler to pour concrete onto the boundaries of his Fortress Europe. The Battle of Manassas showed that the overconfident Union forces were hopelessly outclassed by the inventive Southern commanders -- a lesson it would nevertheless take the North another few years to learn.

Likewise, at this point last season, the contest was universally seen as a duel between Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones. Two years ago, there wasn’t a pundit in the land who thought Taylor Hicks had a chance at making the top three, let alone winning. This year however, despite an extremely fluid midfield containing a very large number of possible contenders for the finals, one cannot deny that shaping this contest is the humongous fortress looming over every inch of the battlefield, its massive cannons capable of decimating anything that moves below and striking terror into the hearts of its opponents -- a fortress named David Archuleta.  On Tuesday night, The Chosen One reasserted himself as the prohibitive front-runner, casting the race in terms of who will be his main opponent, ultimately, the others hope, the one who will sweep onto the field to play Gen. Pershing and the United States to David’s Kaiser Wilhelm.  (And that competition itself now has a nearly prohibitive front-runner in the person of Carly Smithson, although as the race tightens, she will have to fight the incredibly strong midfield for every inch of soil she gains.)

It was a strange night at the Idoldome.  Before the evening began, the seats filled with the usual assortment of celebrity guests: Joely Fischer, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, Rumor Willis.  However, eyebrows were raised by the unprecedented presence in the dome of a phalanx of suit-and-tie-wearing, Secret Service-looking security guards, watching the crowds with eagle eyes astride the elephant doors as they prepared to escort some apparently Very, Very, Very IP to reserved seats, front row and center.  Whispers flew -- could Dick Cheney be coming to watch?  Ban Ki Moon?  Gen. Patraeus? The rare presence in the crowd of worldwide "Idol" creator Simon Fuller only added to the suspense.

Then with seconds to go before opening credits, sneaking in under Simon Cowell’s fanfare, appeared the Royal Personage Herself -- Mrs. Victoria Beckham, with Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz trailing close behind.

On stage, the night had some strange opening skirmish overtones as well.  After the massive explosions of talent firepower last week, the very mixed bag of performances was a bit of an anti-climax, particularly as they were drawing on the same pool of Beatles material.  Mean Judge Cowell seemed particularly crotchety last night, stomping out what came off in the bleachers anyway as passable or better performances by Carly and Chikezie, and by mid-show, almost entirely turning away from many of the performances in apparent disgust.

More genuinely worrisome, however, was an ominous note of cockiness appearing from many of the singers. This column has made a point of advising combatants who desire any sort of longevity to, above all else, behave with decorum when receiving reviews. As previously noted, even "Idol’s" clearest front-runner (until now), Carrie Underwood, had off nights.  Showing humility and respect for the judges is a contestant’s opportunity to show that they are what the public demands -- humble and respectful nice kids and not all-full-of-themselves, getting-too-big-for-their-britches-before-they’ve-even-won. After a bumpy first week in the Top 24, the singers seemed to have learned this lesson and have behaved flawlessly the last few weeks. Until tonight.

Tonight, singer after singer shot back at the judges’ critiques with excuses, explanations and even worse, outright blow-offs. The lowest moment came when Brooke White seemed to be trying to shut them up, filibustering through their comments her “100%” agreement and not listening to a word they said. Of all the candidates, it is The Chosen One, he who has the least to fear from them, who seems to grow stronger with the judges' criticism, who hangs on the judge’s every word, his self-esteem entirely in their hands. It's no coincidence that he is the favorite. Contestants, I will repeat one last time: Your electorate is composed of fans of this show.  The show is represented on air by the judges.  To disrespect the judges, is to disrespect the show, is to spit in the face of the people who hold your fate in their hands. Be respectful and the voters will boo down the judges for you and carry you through a bad night.  Be bratty and dismissive and prepare to reap the whirlwind. Ironically, it was the alt-rocker David Cook who, after giving Simon some lip in the early rounds, struck the perfect tone last night, saying he will take Simon’s harsh words to heart and use them to try and build on what he’s done.  There, is that so hard? (Interestingly, Cook seems to have pulled off what Chris Daughtry never managed to -- finding the right balance of rocker swagger and cool for the "Idol" stage while not acting like he is too good for the show itself and looking like he is holding his nose.)

More worrisome, these reactions to the judges, combined with some lackluster performances, suggests that the greatest season talk may be going a bit to the contestants' heads, becoming a self-denying prophecy. In a conversation with musical director Rickey Minor last year, he said the biggest challenge for every contestant is that a point comes when their egos exceed their ability. It is difficult to sit in the center of the universe and not have that happen. And if that is what was going on for this group, perhaps it is better they got that right out of their system early on. And with the harsh reviews (even from Paula), perhaps this night will prove to be their Dunkirk after all -- an evacuation that initially led to a terrible defeat but that, coming early enough in the hostilities, preserved intact the fighting forces who later would come back ashore at Normandy and march all the way to Berlin. (Except for the one for whom tomorrow night this defeat will prove fatal.)

Gen. Smithson, your troops await your orders!

Six reasons why The Chosen One is certain to win:
1. Has locked up to himself "Idol’s" most crucial voting block, 8- to 11-year-old girls
2. These voters will pathologically speed dial in every vote they can register, fair weather or foul
3. These voters will forgive and love their candidate more for any error or misstep
4. Genetically engineered, trained from birth to win "American Idol"
5. Leading male rival, Michael Johns is on the wane
6. Stumbled early on, lowered expectations just enough

Eight things that could derail The Chosen One:
1. The rising star of Carly Smithson
2. Lack of range
3. His perfection becomes predictable, raising expectations to an impossible level
4. The overwhelming pressure of the expectations of the world gets to him
5. Another stumble like last week's
6. New voters in the 18- to 35-year-old demo, inspired by the fresh faces of Season 7, turn out in unprecedented numbers
7. Future themes force him out of narrow comfort zone
8. Super-humility becomes predictable and tiresome, a la Melinda Doolittle

-- Richard Rushfield

Photo: Fox