‘American Idol’: The last dance of Kristy Lee Cook
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A persistent theme of this column has been the subtle and shameless brilliance of the staging of ‘American Idol’s’ results nights. As previously noted, perhaps unique among primetime shows, ‘Idol’ is helmed by two trained dancers, executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick. Each week this pair, with Lythgoe blocking the scene, manage to turn the most minute of tasks –- revealing the eliminee’s name -- into an intricate and never-predictable ballet, making the second non-performance night of ‘Idol’ a Goliath of entertainment in its own right.
Wednesday night in the Idoldome, the faithful gathered to behead another once-mighty contestant. In this case, the producers were charged with finding how to string out the just-slightly-surprising but in-no-way-shocking news that the journey has ended for country girl Kristy Lee Cook into an hour of suspense and high drama. The extra-special complexity of this task lies in the fact that seven seasons and nearly a hundred results shows in, there would not seem to be a single variation on the staging themes that have not been tried. In the reporters row of the Idoldome, the cynical punditry nods knowingly as we see the order in which they are seated on the couch or set to emerge from backstage, deciphering easily, “If X is the last one to go out, that is because they think we will think it is Y so to turn it around it must be Z.” But week after week, every time we think we have gotten one step ahead of the dance, a new element that we somehow miss is thrown in to flummox us completely.
For the beheading of Kristy Lee Cook, producer Lythgoe outdid himself in creating a twist unforeseen by all. If you will bear with me then, I would like to deconstruct, piece by piece, the levels of understanding, manipulation and theatrics it took to create what turned out to be a night of high drama built out of the roughest of material.
The format: This season has made use of the two-tiered death couch and the couch vs. stool paradigm. The two groups standing on opposite ends of the stage scenario made its first appearance Wednesday night; its advantage being that by creating two unlabeled groups, Lythgoe was able to create some ambiguity about which is the highest versus the lowest, on a night when the bottom three were very predictable.
First up, Jason Castro: The singer most clearly on the bubble between could-be-safe and could-be-doomed. By bringing Jason out first, Lythgoe was able to let the uncertainty about which group is which linger just a bit longer.
David Cook: Lythgoe had two fixed positions in the public consciousness to deal with -– the audience’s justified certainty that David Archuleta and David Cook would not be meeting their ends on this night. Thus, by anchoring one group with Cook, he signaled that this would be the safe group, thus indicating that Jason Castro had fallen in the bottom three.
Carly Smithson: Also sat on the bubble tonight and thus her placement with Castro came as a mild, but comprehensible shock.
Kristy Lee Cook: The night’s most interesting maneuver. While she was in fact doomed, Lythgoe was aware that the public perception was she was on the upswing. By grouping her with David Cook, he created a very plausible safe group, saving the reveal of her fate until the end of the night.
Syesha Mercado: Perceived as highly in danger and thus sealing the perceived fate of the Castro/Carly cluster. By placing her with that group -– however deceptively -– Lythgoe let the audience live the hour and sit through Mariah mulling what we thought was a much more interesting bottom three than the actual predictable truth. And notice that he did all this, created this perception without ever lying, without ever saying ‘this is your bottom three.’ All Angel of Death Seacrest said was, ‘I’d like you to stand together.’
Also, it should be mentioned that while most of the candidates, Carly and Jason in particular, seemed to take their possible fates in stride or at least with gallows humor, laughing, eye rolling and chatting, Syesha throughout the night looked like she was moments away from throwing up.
Brooke White: Now that it seemed the bottom three was complete, the positioning of Brooke, who otherwise would have been expected to be in the bottom, in the safe group, came as a mild surprise.
David Archuleta: To attempt to ring drama out of The Chosen One’s fate would have been a futile task so Lythgoe saved him for the “pick your group” saw, which the poor, harried young superstar handled with endearing grace, but just after…
The Switcheroo: Yes, on some level completely unfair, but all is truly fair in entertainment, just so long as the show stays true to its internal logic and does not actually lie. As mentioned above, the top/bottom groupings were all a matter of perception, of how the audience thinks it has got Lythgoe’s number and seen through his tricks. But once again, the lord of the dance has thrown in a previously unknown backstep and left us spinning.
At the end of all this, however, Angel of Death Seacrest swooped down on a young woman who has had a remarkable journey this season. In the few brief chats I’ve had with her, Kristy Lee seemed the most good-natured and warm of contestants. After emerging from the auditions as a pre-season favorite, she quickly struggled to stand out in this season of super-talents. One of the most painful things to watch on the show is when a contestant falls into the Haley Scarnato tailspin -– stepping forward to be hammered week after week by the judges, barely scraping by but becoming embittered and losing their confidence in the process. Thankfully, after becoming so embittered that she seemed to be openly wishing for the end to come, Kristy Lee found her voice and pulled herself out of that cycle in her time -– actually turning in a pair of very decent performances preceded by one incredibly shameless but brilliant maneuver. All we can wish for for these young people is that having come this far, before they taste Seacrest’s cold embrace, they have at least one happy moment on the ‘Idol’ stage, one moment they can treasure around the hearth in cold, rainy Decembers to come. And Kristy Lee Cook in the end earned herself a fair share of those memories.
-- Richard Rushfield
(Photos courtesy of Fox)