‘American Idol’ Tracker: After Jason Castro, le deluge


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And now, at last, the final lap. In the Idoldome on Wednesday night, where the faithful gathered for the ritual execution of Jason Castro, the room seemed dominated by an unstable mixture of euphoria and exhaustion as we enter the last phases before the anointing at the Nokia in a mere two weeks’ time.

From what promised just three months ago to be the most sure and predictable of seasons, a final three has emerged that not a pundit alive would have prophesied. That from the ashes of the promised Johns-Smithson-Archuleta clash should have emerged this group would have been unthinkable when the Top 24 appeared. David Cook began this season seen as a derivative lightweight Daughtry, called charmless by Judge Cowell, given to sulking at negative reviews and snapping at the judges, he seemed destined for the briefest of also-ran candidacies. Syesha Mercado was a pretty face with a traditional style bound to disappear beneath the more contemporary and quirky pyrotechnics from Smithson, Amanda Overmyer, Brooke White, Ramiele Maluby and even, back when, Alaina Whitaker and Alexandrea Lushington.


But here they are preparing for what promises to be, once we can get over the fact that it was not at all what we expected, a very strong final three. Perhaps not quite on a level with Season Four’s Underwood/Bice/Solomon showdown, but on a par with Clarkson/Guarini/McKibbin and pound for pound, for my money, a mile ahead of Studdard/Aiken/Gracin, Barrino/DiGarmo/Trias, Hicks/McPhee/Yamin and inarguably more interesting than Sparks/Lewis/Doolittle.

The season’s greatest shock has to be the completely unforeseen endurance of Syesha Mercado. Perpetual denizen of the bottom three, she dodged bullet after bullet, only really coming to life in the last few weeks and proving that a strong close is everything. Singing in an old-fashioned style of the type that for so long completely dominated ‘Idol,’ fading into a host of more contemporary performers, including one prodigy genetically engineered to drag the show into its age of grace, Syesha seemed to have arrived at the Idoldome a couple years too late. But to again quote the author William Gibson: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” It would seem that what has worked for ‘Idol’ voters for so many years still, in fact, works.

But before we skip ahead to what seems the inevitable coronation of The Chosen One, there are a few signs that there may yet be surprises left this season. First of all, Ryan Seacrest’s comment last night that all three of the survivors have on one night or another been the top vote-getter spells out pretty clearly that there have been at least two nights when TCO was not the top vote-getter. Second, on the results show, Angel of Death Seacrest stated that of the top three vote-getters, each had less than a million votes between them and the next contestant, indicating a 2-million-vote spread from top to bottom of the three, which in a 50-million-vote universe, means a cluster at the top within 4% of each other. If that is the case, it is very much a roll of the dice who will wind up on the top and who will wind up on the bottom of the cluster next week. Within 4%, anyone could stay or go, and certainly anyone who has a bad night is in grave danger.

Finally there is the little matter of the Case of the Not So Bottom Two. Both this week and last, the Angel of Death has brought out two contestants (this week it was Syesha and Jason; last week it was Syesha and Brooke) and says one of these two will be going home. What he does very much not say however, is that this pair is your bottom two. Which leads one to believe that in this minutely plotted spectacle, if he did not say they were the bottom two, it was because they were not the bottom two. After all, if they were, then why not say it? If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that Ryan Seacrest does not make mistakes.

Now, looking at last week, if Brooke and Syesha were not the bottom two, that means Brooke and someone else were. Given that the producers in their mastery of the choreography strive to milk these results for maximum suspense, we must wonder who that other person was. If last week it had been Jason, why not bring him forward? The audience had been expecting that Brooke, Syesha and Jason were all possibilities for the bottom two: a tossup over who would go. So why would they not use that reality, if it were so, for genuine drama? And if it was not Jason, and it was not Syesha, that means it was one of the Davids. If David Cook had been brought forward as one of the bottom two, it would have been a huge surprise, but not an unbelievable one; after the departures of Carly and Michael, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. But the idea that he would lose instead of Brooke would have been unlikely enough to drain the final ceremony of its tension, although still possible enough that that pairing would have been worthwhile.

Could it be then that The Chosen One shared the bottom rungs with Brooke? And could it be that the producers judged that bringing that pairing out would not only result in the untimely deaths by hysteria of millions of 12-year-old girls, but would be so implausible that TCO would be voted off, rendering the final verdict almost ridiculous?


And then once again, tonight if Syesha was not necessarily in the bottom two, who was? This season may hold great surprises yet. Parallels to Melinda Doolittle’s unstoppable march to victory begin to suggest themselves.

Meanwhile in the Idoldome this week, for the contestants who have survived this long march since January, nerves seemed to bounce off the walls. David Cook, who has been so natural and at ease on stage for many weeks now, for the first time seemed worn and edgy, admitting Wednesday night his head was in a bad space. Syesha, of course, had her public outburst of emotion. Jason publicly said his lack of experience was holding him back and seemed on a hippy version of an emotional roller coaster all week (maybe that’s more of an emotional merry-go-round). Only the Chosen One seems in his shrugging, embarrassed way, completely unaffected by the accumulated pressure.

Contrast that with visiting deposed contestant Carly Smithson, now officially anointed by this column as the greatest performer in ‘American Idol’ history (while still retaining her most electrifying crown). Sitting in the crowd with Season Two contestant Kimberly Caldwell, Smithson seemed rested, buoyant and completely jubilant to be back. At one commercial break, stage manager Debbie Williams summoned Carly back on stage to join her comrades one more time on the death couch where the others awaited their fate, (Williams explained David Cook had suggested, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we came back from break and Carly was just here with us.”) Joining them, Carly seemed happier and having more fun than the shell-shocked survivors could probably even fathom. (Sadly, a voice in her ear piece from the control booth ordered Williams to end the joke and send Carly back to the audience before the show returned from break.)

But honestly, one can hardly begrudge this group a bit of nervous collapse. Performing for over three months straight on a grueling seven-day-a-week schedule, separated from the family and friends in the ‘Idol’ dorms, forced to snap life-or-death song choices and to keep smiling under withering critiques, not to mention the pressure of just having absolutely everything in the world at stake in this contest, it is a wonder that any of them are able to stand on their feet at all. And for the surviving three, it’s about to get much much harder still.

And so we bid farewell to Jason Castro, ‘American Idol’s’ first hippy finalist. With his piercing eyes, goofy remarks, perpetual smile and unmistakable sweet nature, he was a contestant who was impossible not to like. While his musical background was more limited than many of the others, he nonetheless had some star-making musical moments and was the sort of genuine find for whom this season will be remembered. Judging from the avalanche of e-mail I have received from his Dreadhead fan club in the past few weeks, Castro has the most ardent of fan bases which will without a doubt stay with him as he moves into his post-’Idol’ career. Whether through his music or his personality, Castro always brought a bit of fun to the ‘Idol’ stage, was never just filler, and for that we wish him well and treasure the time we’ve shared in the Idoldome.

- Richard Rushfield