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The Wheels On The Bus

'Tis the season for deaths by mysterious circumstances on American Idol

The date: May 12, 2004.  The place: Los Angeles.  The nightmare: the producers' worst.  The gravest threat to the future of Fox's three-year-old smash hit, American Idol, had just arrived.  It wasn't a backstage scandal, nor a competing network's series, nor even America's TV viewers suddenly learning how to recognize off-tune singing.  It was, in fact, a menace far worse than all of that combined.

It was a pretty, 17-year-old Hawaiian girl with a flower in her hair.

Normally, a gentle soul like Jasmine Trias wouldn't qualify as much of a menace.  But a day earlier, in the AI3 Final Four, the young ballad specialist had crashed and burned like no Idol before.  She unleashed a matching pair of Disco train wrecks that, five years later, are still ensconsced in the WhatNotToSing.com Bottom 40.  Trias wept openly upon hearing the judges' no-holds-barred critiques, and there wasn't a shred of doubt in any corner of the land that she'd be sent packing the next night.

Except she wasn't.  Front-running LaToya London got the axe instead.  A season that had already produced two controversial early eliminations in Amy Adams and Jennifer Hudson now had added a third, and arguably the most egregious, to its résumé.  One of the most gifted singers in the show's history was gone, critics were having a field day, and Idol was on the verge of becoming a national laughingstock.  If Trias were somehow to advance to the Finale in two weeks, that "verge" would be gone, too.

And so, the producers huddled.  What to do?

Their solution was, if we might coin a term, inspiredly ruthless.  The Final Three episode was to include a round in which Clive Davis selected a song for each contestant.  In a calm, matter-of-fact tone not unlike Hannibal Lecter reminiscing about fava beans, Davis explained to Ryan Seacrest that the song he chose for Trias was...All By Myself.  The very song on which London had delivered a 94-rated masterpiece in her semifinals debut.

Ruthless or not, the producers' strategem worked like a charm.  Trias tried gamely but couldn't come close to matching London's tour de force, and a chagrined America finally sent her home the next night.

Depending on what part of the world you live in and what your local slang might be, what the producers did to Trias can be described with any of the following catchphrases: punk'd, whacked, offed, Tonya'ed, blindsided, smacked down, tossed overboard, cut off at the knees.  In Idolsphere jargon, however, the widely accepted idiom is, "Jasmine got thrown under the bus."

Bus Stop, Wet Day, She's There, I Say....

Since that fateful night, the bus hasn't exactly sat idle in its depot.  The producers have kept it lovingly tuned up and in top working condition, to be dispatched whenever a pesky contestant needs to be, um, dispatched.  Let's take a tour of some of its most memorable accident scenes through the years.  To keep our journey brief, we'll concentrate primarily on cases in which the "push" involved an unwinnable or inappropriate song assignment in the Final Three or Finale.  We recognize that the producers have many additional murder weapons in their arsenal, which we'll get to later on...provided they (*gulp*) don't send the bus for us before we finish this essay.

  • Season Two: One might reasonably argue that this was a bus-free season.  In some quarters, however, there are still questions swirling around the "Random Choice" selections in the Final Three show, particularly those of Kimberley Locke (Band Of Gold) and Clay Aiken (Vincent).  This is just our opinion, but we don't think the producers were out of bounds in assigning those songs, as they represented tough but "winnable" challenges for the contestants.  Your mileage may vary.  (Mind you, like almost everyone else, we don't believe for a moment that every piece of paper in each contestant's jar didn't have the same song title written on it.)
  • Season Four: A Carrie Underwood-Bo Bice Finale seemed a foregone conclusion, though there was still a small chance that the popular and very likable Vonzell Solomon might slip past one or the other at the wire.  The producers, we'd say, took no chances.  In addition to drawing the leadoff "death spot" in the Final Three, Solomon's got dealt I'll Never Love This Way Again and On The Radio, neither of which are the stuff that showstoppers are made of.  (In fairness, Underwood and Bice didn't exactly win the grand prize with their Judges' Choice songs, either.)  Perhaps most curious was Solomon's unusually emotional behavior that night, as she seemed to be near tears at several junctures.  One might fairly wonder if she knew from the singing slot and the song assignments that the bus had been summoned for her.
  • Season Five: One week after betting favorite Chris Daughtry was shockingly bounced, longshot Elliott Yamin appeared to get the Solomon Treatment himself.  In addition to a leadoff assignment (his second in three weeks), the blue-eyed soul singer discovered that the only person in America who'd dream of putting him and Journey in the same sentence was, unfortunately, Clive Davis.  Coupled with an equally uninspired Judges' Choice selection from Paula Abdul, and a "Farewell And Godspeed" critique from Simon Cowell, he was predictably voted off the next night.  (It is to Yamin's credit, however, that he didn't leap off the stage and wring Simon's neck when the acerbic judge forgot the script and sniffed, "Your [song choices] are not going to carry you through to next week, that's the problem....")
  • Season Six: In the days leading up to the Final Three, many conspiracy-minded bloggers and forumists confidently predicted that Blake Lewis would end up with tire marks on his back.  They were stunned, then, when the producers' apparent "Chosen One", Jordin Sparks, not only drew the leadoff slot but also a pair of abysmal song assignments: Wishing On A Star and She Works Hard For The Money.  Sparks nonetheless survived and beat Lewis in the Finale, helped immensely by an Original Winner's Song™, This Is My Now, that fit her perfectly while leaving Lewis as roadkill.
  • Season Seven: If anyone believed that the producers could never send a bigger bus for a contestant than they did for Trias, they were proven wrong.  In a season in which the Idolsphere essentially split into two warring camps, one backing David Archuleta and the other David Cook, 19E found a way to unite them for one brief moment.  Virtually everyone was horrified when Final Three contestant Syesha Mercado, whose chances of making the Finale were near zero despite a strong late-season run, got saddled with the execrable Hit Me Up from Happy Feet for her final Idol assignment.  Who knew penguins could drive?  (The true victim here, we'd venture to say, was the producers' credibility.  The David-vs.-David Finale they coveted was the surest of things anyway, so this was a needless and totally pointless whacking.)

Sometimes A Cigar Is Just A Cigar

We're headed back to the station now, but we can hear many of our readers shouting angrily at their monitors, "Hey, don't forget about how they threw ________ under the bus too!"  Crime scene investigations, real or imagined, are a favorite topic of the Idolsphere, particularly at this time of year.  Just about every veteran Idol fan has believed at one point or another that his or her favorite contestant was sabotaged by the producers.  Oftentimes, they're correct.  But not always.

Which leads us to a sensitive topic, one where we'll try for once to tread carefully.  We have no doubts that the producers can be grossly underhanded and manipulative at times, particularly as the competition wears on.  Given the amount of revenue at stake, it's almost...we stress almost...understandable.  19E has a vested interest in arranging the "right" Finale to crown the "right" winner, both for income and credibility purposes.  As we've written many times before, and as we're sure to write again in the future, this is all a consequence of the show's fundamental conflict of interest: The people responsible for bringing America a fair and impartial singing competition are the same ones who stand to profit handsomely if certain contestants advance further than others.  We might call this The Original Sin of American Idol.

But, this doesn't mean that every suspicious outcome or unfavorable plot twist is the spawn of Satan himself.  For example, one contestant whose fanbase is drop-dead certain that he was a bus victim is AI7's Jason Castro.  The judges never quite knew what to make of the dreadlocked folk singer, though he did earn ample praise for his strongest performances.  Towards the end of his run, however, the critiques turned decidedly negative, culminating in one of the most embarrassing moments in TV history.  Halfway through the Final Five episode, Paula Abdul, demonstrating the sort of profound discombobulation that has made her a household name, misunderstood an impromptu change in format and proceeded to criticize harshly both of Castro's performances, including the one that he had yet to give.

Paula's gaffe ripped open the veil of American Idol and allowed viewers a frightening glimpse into the show's backstage machinations.  It instantly became clear that her comments were (and surely still are) scripted in advance, and so possibly the same was true for the other judges as well.  (No one, we hope, believed that nonsense about Paula just happening to have walked into the studio that night during Castro's dress rehearsal.)  Castro's fans were justifiably furious, to the point where a search for " Jason Castro 'under the bus' " returns almost 17,000 hits on Google.

We'd agree that what happened to Castro that night was an outrage.  However, the fact remains that his final five performances of 2008 earned a cumulative approval rating from web reviewers of 87, or 17.4 on average.  From what we can tell, only Sanjaya Malakar ever strung together a consecutive five-pack of outings that scored lower.  Which leads us to a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Did the judges' shenanigans crush Castro's spirit and cause his performance quality to drop, or were they simply reacting naturally to a contestant whose output had plummeted to the point where the show's reputation would suffer if he remained on it much longer?  This is a complex question on which reasonable people can disagree.*

* (Incidentally, if you're a still-smarting Castro fan contemplating a letter to us on this subject, please don't.  We all liked Castro, and we're only using him as an illustrative case, and besides, our mailbox is already overflowing with indignant letters from one current contestant's overzealous fans every time one of his approval ratings doesn't rank first on the night.  So our patience with rabid fanbases is really wearing thin.  'K?)

The Case of Season Six is another example of ambiguity.  Was there a bus victim at all that year?  Many of our fellow analysts are convinced there was (a handful even claim it was Melinda Doolittle), but the mechanism is certainly unclear.  At the least, one has to question whether the same production crew is capable of kneecapping a Final Three contestant so subtly one season and another so blatantly the next.

In short, the producers do an unacceptable amount of bus-throwing, but probably not as much as they're accused of.  The problem is that they do it so unashamedly that dedicated fans of the show who are of a suspicious bent (and these days, that's most of us) can't tell what's intentional and what's innocent.  Which, ahem, brings us back to our longstanding suggestion that 19E hire someone respected to act as a referee/overseer/ombudsman for the competition.  Perhaps they'll finally take us up on that next year.  But that's a discussion for another day.  Right now, there's a more urgent problem we need to address.

Four On The Floor

It's no secret that we WNTS staffers have not been the biggest fans of Season Eight.  From the dreary audition shows, to the nearly unwatchable Hollywood week coverage that featured more contrived drama than actual singing, to the unspeakably bogus semifinals, 19E has somehow managed to do what many of we longtime Idol fans would never have dreamt possible: made us pine for the days of Nigel Lythgoe in charge.

And yet, having slogged miserably through this three-month swamp, we've miraculously arrived at a May that promises to be...good.  Very good.  Unbelievably, you-gotta-be-kidding-us, silk-purse-out-of-sow's-ear good.  Kris Allen, Danny Gokey, Allison Iraheta, and Adam Lambert are conceivably the strongest Final Four that American Idol has ever produced, out of a season in which the only "strongest" it's produced up to now has been stench.  Here are some hard numbers:

  • AI8's Final Four has the second-highest cumulative approval rating of any season heading into its last three weeks.  At 67.25, it's fractionally behind AI6 (entirely thanks to Doolittle) and comfortably ahead of third-place AI5 at 65.2.
  • Lambert, Iraheta, Gokey and Allen have given 36 performances, and they've rated above 50 on 32 of them.  At 89%, that's by miles the highest percentage of any season.  In contrast, last year's Final Four broke par on just 63% of their efforts.  Lambert's "perfect game" is still alive, Allen's was snapped a couple weeks ago by just one tantalizing point, Iraheta's fell by just three points.
  • The Final Four have fallen below 3-stars just once all year (Gokey's Endless Love, at 35).  That's a mind-boggling 97% "quality ratio", and it's nearly 10 percentage points higher than their closest pursuers, AI2.
  • If 4-star performances are your thing, "LambIrGoLen" lead the league in that department too, having reached that strata on an even two-thirds of their attempts.  AI4 and AI7 didn't even reach 50%.
  • Individually, Lambert is currently the highest-rated male contestant in the show's history, and he ranks fourth among all finalists.  But he's got company: Iraheta is seventh, and Allen is ninth.  Barring a significant dropoff, should any of them win they'd be the second-highest rated champion ever, behind only one K. B. Clarkson.  As for Gokey, he's the only contestant this season who hasn't yet been in the Bottom Three, an exclusive club he shares with five of the previous seven winners.

How did this happen in a season so otherwise soporific?  It's as if one of those famous typewriter-bound monkeys really did pound out Hamlet at random, or at least the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

Better still, at least from the producers' standpoint, the potential for drama is, well, dramatic.  Nobody knows who's going to win.  Nobody even has much of a clue as to who's going home this week, although most people assume it won't be Lambert after last week's Bottom Two scare.  The producers have been aiming squarely for a Gokey-Lambert Finale for many weeks now, or at least, ever since they evidently decided that Lil Rounds wasn't going to cut it and threw her you-know-where.  Quote honestly, we think the overhyped good-vs-evil, red-states-vs-blue-states, Clash-Of-Cultures angle is, frankly, silly beyond words, but the two singers' obvious contrast in styles would certainly make for a good TV showdown.  And, all personality and backstory irrelevancies aside, both can definitely sing.

But that showdown might not happen at all.  From where we sit today, we'd guess its chances are less than 50-50.  That's because Iraheta and Allen are not only strong contenders, but they're two of the biggest Cinderella stories that AI has ever produced.  As we've noted before, they were the only two of the 13 original finalists not to have been given a "pimp piece" promotional segment back in January.  Prior to the semifinals, the sum of their Idol exposure was (a) a combined eight seconds of audition snippets, (b) exactly one spoken word between them (Iraheta's "Sweet!" when told she'd made it through to Hollywood), and (c) one fully-aired Hollywood Week group performance (Allen's, as part of the now-legendary "White Chocolate".)  Both have gotten this far the old-fashioned way: by singing so strongly week after week that they gave America no convenient opportunity to send them home.  Having knocked off nine heavily-promoted rivals, Allen and Iraheta now have their sights set on the two big dogs.  And while much of America "lurves" Adam Lambert and another part "lurves" Danny Gokey, one thing America "lurves" more than anything else is a great underdog story.  So this race is not yet over...

...unless, that is, the producers intercede.  All signs point to their still strongly coveting the so-called "LambKey" Finale, including the latest inappropriate comments from Simon Cowell in a TV interview this week.  (Is it really too much to ask the judges to stop dancing, stop shooting off their mouths, stop prostrating themselves to the producers' outdated, four-month-old script, and start acting like impartial, grown-up judges of a talent competition?  It is?  Oh, er...okay.  Just asking.)

One might think it would be insane of 19E to throw anyone under the bus at this point, particularly since the competition is so close and all four remaining contestants have strong commercial potential.  But, sanity has never been the producers' strong suit.  If they have reason to believe that one contestant "needs" to win to legitimize his or her post-Idol career, they'd speed-dial Ralph Kramden in a heartbeat to whack the others.

And by the way: don't make the assumption that it'll be Allen or Iraheta who'd get the close-up view of an automatic transmission.  For all we know, the producers might have a business reason to toss one of the favorites overboard.  They had no qualms about debuting Idol's first-ever Bottom Majority last Tuesday (until this season, they'd only announced a Bottom Two in the Final Five and later.)  Thus, either Allen or Lambert had to sweat out his fate for no apparent reason.  If you believe it was to rally the two roommates' fans to vote harder for them...well, maybe, but as many bloggers have correctly pointed out, 19E strongly prefers their winners unsullied.  It's far easier that way to promote them as truly America's Choice.  Were they merely testing the waters to see if further manipulation this season was feasible?

Thus, our message to 19E and friends is simply this: Hands off, you swine.  Let this excellent stretch run play out fair and square.  You owe us all that much after having irritated us on a twice-weekly basis since January with all those insecure, contrived, gimmicky "twists".  Despite all of that, you grudgingly deserve boatloads of credit for somehow orchestrating such a Fantastic Four.  So, like, don't blow it now, pretty please?

By that, we mean keep the bus in the depot.  You have no choice, really, because the entire Idolsphere will be watching you like hawks, and we know all your old tricks.  For instance, play no games with the singing order.  Lambert hasn't sung first since the Finals began and Gokey hasn't sung last, so that takes care of two of the four slots on Tuesday.  Have Allen and Iraheta flip a coin for the other two, and let the three survivors play rock-paper-scissors live on Wednesday night's show to determine next week's order.

Judges: No nonsensical, reality-challenged reviews out of you.  This is the time of year when Randy Jackson's pitch sense always seems to turn superhuman.  News flash, Dawg:  Allen and Iraheta haven't scored below 47 all season long.  They aren't likely to go "sharp" or "pitchy" all of a sudden this Tuesday, so don't even think about suggesting it.  No patently predetermined attempts to bid adieu to a contestant, Simon – unless you're Nostradamus reincarnated, you have no more idea than the rest of us as to whose time is up.  Kara, keep the ramblings on "artistry" to a minimum, not that anyone is listening; and Paula, just show up sober and, if at all possible, remember to critique the performances one at a time.

Lighting, sound mixes, camera angles...yes, director Bruce Gowers, we're watching you, too.  We're well aware that inequitable production effects are part of 19E's usual bag of tricks.  A couple of contestants have surely used up their allotment of kilowatt-hours this year.  Keep it real from here on out.

For next week's Final Three episode, the song assignments will be scrutinized like never before.  Producers, if your plans are to (choose all that apply): give Gokey "Friend Of The Devil", give Allen "Ballroom Blitz", give Lambert "I've Never Been To Me", or give Iraheta "Barbie Girl", now would be a great time to reconsider.  Else, we'll have your hides.  Present each contestant with a challenge to be sure, but keep the song choices appropriate, fresh, and fair.  Call out the California National Guard, deploy them around the theater all week, and issue them Clive Davis's photo with orders to interdict and repel.  Call all of this the Syesha Mercado Memorial Rule, subtitled "Never Again".

In short, let the Final Four sing on equal footing and then critique them fairly.  Let America do the deciding, not 19E.  Yes, we think one person will have a bigger post-Idol career than the other three, but that's neither here nor there when it comes to who ought to win.  It's a competition, not a coronation.  We want to see the next three weeks run like a sporting league's playoffs: everything up to now was the regular season, and now the slate for the four qualifiers is wiped clean.  Whoever does the best on their final eight songs is the winner.  Anyone with us on that?

Perhaps the moguls at American Idol can learn from our four-legged friends.  The winner of yesterday's Kentucky Derby was an unheralded nobody, a 50-to-1 shot from oblivion by way of New Mexico who seemingly had no business running with the finest three-year-olds in the land.  He was a humiliating seven lengths behind the second-to-last horse after the first turn...and an astounding seven lengths ahead of the second-place horse at the end.  It appears that the other 18 jockeys had run at far too fast a pace on the heavy, muddy track, and all but one horse tired at the end.  Was Mine That Bird's win just a fluke?  Maybe, but who cares?  The beauty of sports is that the best athlete doesn't always win, but the most deserving one usually does.  Just once, we'd like to see the producers allow an AI season to end that way, too.

Adam, Allison, Danny, Kris: it's post time.  Each of you would, in our opinion, make a worthy American Idol Champion.  Good luck to all, and do your best to make this a memorable run for the roses.  We'll keep an eye on those bus-throwing coyotes for you.

- The WNTS.com Team

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