Pop Culture

Drama! 'Idol' is unpredictably shocking this year

In most “American Idol” seasons, James Durbin’s elimination on May 12 would have been the shocker of the year. Durbin, the metal-loving contestant who had sailed through the first four months of the competition, was widely expected to make it to the finale but instead finished in fourth place.

That type of blindside has been par for the course this season, however. And though Ryan Seacrest may be on a 10-year streak of teasing the “shocking results!” every week, this season, he actually means it.

Of the 10 finalists voted off so far, four weren’t among the three lowest vote-getters the previous week. Durbin isn’t counted among that group, but only because Ryan had only revealed the bottom two the week before. The results show has been a surprise more often than not: On one of the previous weeks, Ryan gave the contestants their fates in random order, and Casey Abrams was blindsided both times he was voted off.

Abrams, one of the early favorites, got the fewest number of votes early in the competition and led the judges to use their save. Two weeks later, Pia Toscano fans were stunned when she was shown the door. (If her visibility since then is any indication, she doesn’t need to worry about finding work anytime soon.) Both were considered top contenders, and yet neither would come close to making the finale.

That unpredictability works both ways. Haley Reinhart, who was in the bottom three each of the first two weeks, is now among the final three standing and is potentially two weeks away from becoming the greatest comeback story in "Idol" history. Stefano Langone also spent the first half of the season dodging bullet after bullet before he was finally eliminated.

What gives?

Chalk it up to three factors: A talented field left few obvious also-rans to get picked off early. The addition of online voting makes it easier for a committed fan base to go all out in support of their candidate. And the judges have largely stepped back from making endorsements. That’s helped make this the hardest field to predict in recent memory.

Talented singers, tech-savvy voters
Every season, the judges and Ryan tell us that this is the best group of finalists in the history of mankind. This year, that might actually be the case.

Not only did the judges pick contestants with strong voices and showmanship, they also spread it around to offer a comprehensive mix of styles. It hasn’t been a year where one singer blends into another very often — the men in particular all have very different strengths and weaknesses.

Due to the variety, it’s not a season where if you don’t like Contestant A, it’s easy to transfer affection to Contestant B because both are so similar. To take the most recent example, where will Durbin’s votes wind up going? There’s nobody remotely similar to him among the final three, so unless his fans stop watching the show or fail to vote, predicting where that support will go is an exercise in guesswork.

That’s helped motivate fan bases, as is apparent when nearly every week, Ryan notes that the show received a record number of votes. That isn't a sign that the show has exploded in the ratings, though it has enjoyed resurgence with its new team of judges. Rather, it's because the show added online voting this season.

Anyone with a Facebook account can vote up to 50 times each week just by clicking their mouse. Voting 50 times by phone requires the patience of Job to fight through the busy signals, while texting causes thumb pain, is only available to AT&T customers and costs money. Voting online is a piece of cake by comparison.

Casting votes online may be bolstered by the rise of social media. This is the first year the contestants are on Twitter, which makes it easy to see its power. Scotty McCreery, for example, has around 140,000 followers, Lauren Alaina has more than 100,000 and Haley Reinhart has more than 90,000.

If just a moderate percentage of those fans on Twitter take advantage of online voting, it's a big number. And that doesn't count the multitude of Twitter accounts devoted to fans of each singer, each of which has a following of their own.

That adds a different variable than in years past. A singer with a fan base that is more technologically savvy can generate a lot more votes than one whose fans rely on dialing and texting. Anyone who’s on Facebook or Twitter during the broadcast doesn’t even need to leave the couch to have an impact. It’s a new variable that wreaked havoc with prediction sites early in the competition, and makes it more difficult to guess the outcome in advance.

Everyone deserves to win!
Finally, don’t underrate the importance of the absence of cringeworthy criticism among the judges.

Simon Cowell's departure hasn't impacted the ratings, but it has changed the nature of the show. The judges now offer mostly support and advice, and there hasn't been any mean-spirited sarcasm all season. Reinhart is the only member of the final three to receive sustained negative feedback, and those comments center almost entirely around her song selection rather than her vocal abilities.

Simon’s words weren’t always treated as gospel by the voters, and as Reinhart has shown this year, criticism doesn’t always lead to an immediate exit. But Simon was always overt at letting viewers know who he considered to be undeserving of sticking around, and more often than not the audience shared those views.

Regardless of how poorly a singer does these days, nobody is likened to a cruise-ship act or a lounge in whatever town Simon last vacationed. Nobody is told to try another line of work. Instead, the theme is that everyone is equally deserving, and it's all about who the fans like best. According to Randy Jackson, everyone remaining is officially “in it to win it!”

With the finalists equally good, it’s no shock that every week the randomness seems to increase. As Ryan reminds everyone, anything can happen on “American Idol,” this season more than ever.

Craig Berman is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter   as he live tweets each episode.

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