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'American Idol' recap: Jessica Sanchez earns a dramatic judges' save

April 13, 2012 |  4:00 am

Jessica Sanchez on "American Idol": Click for full coverage

Jessica Sanchez? Really, America?

On Thursday night, the "American Idol" voters opted to eliminate the contestant who many, many people, including the judges and this critic, had considered to be one of the front-runners -- if not the leading candidate -- to win the whole thing this season. That is, Sanchez would have been sent home had the judges not used their one and only season save.

Not that there was any doubt that they would use it once they saw who America had condemned to the bottom three: Sanchez, Joshua Ledet and Elise Testone -- judge and critical favorites, all. (Sanchez is also the voter favorite in our "Idol"/"Voice" poll.)

VOTE: Who did you think was the best singer of the week?

We probably would have been more shocked by the vote results and the save had we not been through the whole Casey-Abrams-save and Pia-Toscano-elimination insanity last year. But this year, thank goodness, the judges had husbanded their save for just the right moment. (No thanks to Jennifer Lopez, who had seemed ready to use it on several less-worthy, previously eliminated contestants.)

And though totally unexpected, the results were ultimately short on suspense, especially once Steven Tyler had tipped the judges' hand: "We're gonna use our card tonight, especially with an outcome like this," he said, totally deflating what was poised to be one heck of a dramatic moment.

All of Ryan Seacrest's hard work trying to build tension had gone to waste. After dispensing with the niceties -- the contestants singing Pink's "Raise Your Glass," the ceremonial reading of laudatory tweets from singers whose songs had been performed and dispensing of fan mail (sounds like Colton Dixon's going to make some high school prom girl very happy) -- Seacrest got down to business.

INTERACTIVE | 'Idol' vs. 'The Voice': Who's the best?

His method: Build two groups and make the audience figure out which three were safe and which three were the lowest vote-getters.

Hollie Cavanagh, probably the favorite to go home, and Sanchez were called to the center of the stage. Jimmy Iovine, comparing the two, concluded that, while Sanchez had learned the performance habits of a star, Cavanagh had learned bad habits, coming off as "contrived" and "stiff," whereas Sanchez sounded "effortless." Randy Jackson said he stood by his high praise for Sanchez the night before "100 percent," calling her "just ridiculously good."

Seacrest sent Cavanagh to one side of the stage and Sanchez to the other, so you figured it was either going to be easy to peg the bottom three, or Seacrest had some switcheroo up his sleeve.

Next, after Season 10 finalist James Durbin, bleached blond and newly married, sang his metallic "Higher Than Heaven" and shared that "Idol" pal Stefano Langone was the best man and Casey Abrams a guest at his New Year's Eve wedding, Phillip Phillips and Testone were called forward.

Testone had done well with Lady Gaga's "You and I," though Phillips, of whom I am an undeniable fan, had given what may have been his weakest performance so far in the competition. Iovine predicted that both "singer-songwriters," suffering from being deprived of their own songs, would land in the week's bottom three. But Seacrest directed Phillips to join Cavanagh, and Testone to join Sanchez, leading most of us to conclude that the voters had punished Phillips for his so-so song and somewhat unexpectedly rewarded Testone for a strong week.

Jennifer Hudson (the only "Idol" finalist to have gone on to win both a Grammy and an Oscar, despite having been voted off at seventh place, which, for perspective, is what Sanchez would have been, sans save) sang "Think Like a Man," joined by Ne-Yo and a gaggle of black-dress-clad dancers. Then Dixon and Ledet were called off the couches. Iovine praised Ledet's performance as "natural" and "flawless, " saying the Bruno Mars song he chose "fitted him like a glove." Dixon, he contended, managed to rise above his singer-songwriter handicap and impress. "I'm in. I'm in on Colton and I'm in on Joshua last night," Iovine said.

But Seacrest, noting that Dixon had never earned a standing ovation from the judges (something Ledet does nearly every week), revealed that these two singers, too, had been voted into different groups. Dixon was sent to join Cavanagh and Phillips. Ledet looked relieved to learn he would join Sanchez and Testone.

That left Skylar Laine, alone on the couch, wondering about her own fate. Iovine said Laine was a total pro -- both a singer-songwriter and a "technical singer" -- and that he was afraid she would be left behind due to her subtlety. He said he was "floored" by her performance the previous night and that "she should not be in the bottom three."

Who should? Iovine predicted the bottom three would be "Phillip, Elise and Hollie."

Seacrest told Laine she was safe, and then tried to make her figure out which group that meant she should join. She smartly refused.

That left Seacrest to deliver the shocking news himself: Cavanagh, Phillips, Dixon, and Laine were safe. Ledet, Testone and Sanchez were, completely confoundingly, the bottom three.

Jackson said he'd never seen anything like it in his 11 seasons on the show. America, he said, "got it wrong tonight. They got it so wrong."

But the stunning moment was short-lived. Tyler, that talker, almost immediately blabbed that the judges would definitely use their save. (They have to use or lose it before the top 5 anyway.)

After a commercial break in which Testone apparently got the nervous giggles, Ledet was briskly sent to safety. Then, more surprisingly, Testone was spared.

Suddenly, Sanchez was singing for the save. And then, even more suddenly, the judges were up on stage. "We're not letting you sing," they said. "This is crazy." "Yes, we're using the save." Then, clearly: "We are saving Jessica without any doubt."

Jackson made a heartfelt plea to the voters: "This girl is one of the best singers in America, ever," he said, begging, "Please vote for the best.... It's about finding the best. I mean, come on."

Sanchez's response? Nearly lost in the mayhem, she didn't sicken and swoon like Abrams did when the judges saved him last season, but she did seem to be in shock.

What was going through her mind when she saw the judges march up onstage, Seacrest asked. "Nothing," she said. Was she surprised to be standing there at the end of the show? "I don't expect anything. I just do what I do," she said, helping us understand why she might have connected with a song like "Stuttering." She just wants viewers to know that she's "just been working hard my whole life."

"The judges did the right thing," Seacrest reassured the 16-year-old power vocalist, urging her to "sing us out" as the credits rolled.

So let's all raise a plastic red Coke glass to the judges. We may not always agree with their verdicts on individual performances, but I think we can all agree that this week, by saving Sanchez, they used their powers well and wisely.

Were you shocked by this week's "Idol" results?

"Idol" versus "The Voice": Times music and television writers, including Amy Reiter, are ranking the five best performers each week, regardless of venue. Readers are invited to cast their votes too. See who made the top five this week at Who do you think stood out? Use the poll below to make your picks. Check back to see if your favorites made the cut. The poll closes Monday at noon.


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-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Jessica Sanchez performs on "American Idol." Credit: Michael Becker / Fox