American I-Dull

When "American Idol" tweaked its semifinal format for this season, one of the goals was to add an element of drama to what has historically been a dull affair.

In recent years, the semifinals were a three-week event in which 24 contestants competed to reach the final 12 and only four were kicked off each week. It was more important for singers to avoid awful performances than it was to stand out.

Anyone with a good backstory and a decent voice was a sure bet to make it out of the first week or two, and if there was a controversy in the first week, so what? The tenth-best guy might get sent home instead of the eleventh-best. Big deal. Whoever barely survived the first week's cut would likely be gone soon after anyway.

That intensity was supposed to increase in season eight. With 12 contestants chasing just three finalist slots each week, the math doesn't work in the singers' favor. According to the script, this should result in more singers taking chances and doing whatever it takes to get the attention of the viewers.

However, last week did not have the promised surprise and drama. Tuesday's performances were bland, and Wednesday's results were predictable. What was supposed to be new and exciting was anything but.

Same old problems
The first semifinal week featured the usual tripwires that cause contestants to stumble. Most, including Anoop Desai and Stephen Fowler, picked songs that held personal significance, but didn't engage the audience or please the judges. The only two who avoided the traps, Danny Gokey and Alexis Grace, had already been anointed among the judges' favorites.

Since the voters played it as safe as the contestants, the advancing singers were easy to predict. Once Gokey and Grace advanced, everyone else was in a big pool ranging from OK to mediocre, so the viewers went for the best story, choosing oil roughneck Michael Sarver.

Vocally speaking, there's no room for outrage with any of the choices. Quibble over whether Desai or Ricky Braddy should have gotten that third spot, but neither was spectacular enough to have reason for complaint.  If the rest of the season goes this smoothly, it'll be a very dull year for

But if that happens, it also will be a very bland season.

Audience needs someone to boo
Part of the appeal of "Idol" is that people can root against some contestants even as they cheer for others. Sanjaya Malakar and Scott Savol filled that role in previous years, and Kristy Lee Cook in season seven. They added an element of drama each week, because even as people were cheering for their favorites to advance, they were also rooting for their least favorites to go home.

That would have been the natural role for Tatiana Del Toro a year ago. Her drama-infused personality throughout the auditions turned off enough voters that even a relatively good performance on Tuesday couldn't save her, but she was the second-best of the six women who sang. This year, there was no reward for that.

Del Toro wouldn't have been a serious candidate to win, since with the season barely six weeks old, she had already managed to earn scorn for her whiny, sobbing antics. But the show needs some drama beyond the weekly question of how Ryan Seacrest can fill an hour-long results show with three minutes of news, and Del Toro definitely had that to spare. Making space for people like her, is going to be important when filling the last nine finalist slots.

Having a bunch of clean-cut candidates vying for the title is great for the show's image, but unless there's a little edge, it becomes tiring. In addition to people to love, "Idol" needs people the viewers love to hate. Otherwise the only people to dislike are the judges, and after eight seasons it's hard to muster up much outrage over whatever Simon says to the women sitting next to him.

It's always been helpful to have an engaging story, but this year the odds are even more against the singers who haven't been the darlings of the TV cameras thus far.

Sarver did not become one of the first three singers to make the finals because he had a great performance. There wasn't much separating him from Desai, or Braddy, or Brent Keith.  But Sarver's story is much better known — 27 years old, working on an oil rig, probably his one big chance at stardom.

Odds are that this backstory gave him the edge over Desai in their race to advance. Desai's fanbase wasn't much smaller than Sarver's, however, and Ryan Seacrest described the margin of separation between them as 20,000 votes. That, combined with the popular "Anoop Dog" nickname that Randy hung on Desai early (per Desai's own request), makes Desai a strong candidate to sneak in via the wild-card round.

Meanwhile, what must Brent Keith be thinking? At 28, he's running out of chances, and has to wonder what would have happened if he'd received the attention that Sarver got. If his "Nashville Star" past was considered as interesting as Sarver's oil rig job, he might have been allowed to sit on the stools of safety instead of the benches of disappointment on Wednesday.

Ricky Braddy has even more of a complaint. The judges all thought he sang well, complaining that he looked like he lacked confidence. If the "Braddy Bunch" had gotten the same attention that "Anoop Dog" did, maybe he'd have been the one standing on stage within 20,000 votes of advancing.

Some of them might get second chances in the upcoming wild-card round. If that happens, hopefully they'll have learned their lesson and been a little more daring if that's what it takes to get viewer attention. And "Idol" is hoping that the 12 singers set to show off their pipes this week bring a little more to the table than their counterparts did a week ago.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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