Pop Culture

At long last, Sanjaya goes home on ‘Idol’

Next week, “American Idol” unveils its “Idol Gives Back” charity drive. This week, it gave back its most talked-about contestant.

Sanjaya Malakar had more admirers, or “admirers,” than would ordinarily surround someone of his caliber in a competition like this one. Some liked his personality, his constantly changing hairstyle, or the fact that he was an underdog. Some were rooting for him because they thought it would be funny to have a lesser talent win the whole thing. And some probably just liked the way he sang.

Whatever the motivation, the story of Sanjaya has eclipsed everything else in the “Idol” universe over the past month. He’s been mentioned on just about every entertainment program in the country, from talk-show television to satellite radio to the blogosphere. At 17, he’s a lock to have a shot at a career in entertainment if he wants it, since his name recognition alone will make him among the most sought-after TV guest stars over the next few months.

The only problem is too many people took Simon at his word, and considered “Idol” a singing competition instead of an entertainment one. If the vocals are the ultimate measuring stick, Malakar was bound to fall short of the finale. But that’s not necessarily good news for “Idol” as it heads into the final five weeks of the season.

Something to talk about
For all the heat that Sanjaya has taken this season, his ouster is probably bad news for the show. “Idol” is not going to lose its timeslot to “Thank God You're Here” or anything, but there will definitely be a drop in buzz.

Unlike previous seasons, the sense of competition hasn’t taken hold this time around. Melinda Doolittle seems so far ahead of everyone else that there’s less drama than usual. While individual hopefuls rise and fall each week, nobody has emerged as a clear challenger to the throne.

This will change when the show gets down to the final few competitors, but for right now there’s no Bo Bice to Doolittle’s Carrie Underwood, no Chris Daughtry or Katharine McPhee to her Taylor Hicks. There’s Doolittle, then a big gap, then everyone else.

Because of that, Sanjaya Malakar has played a key role this season. His continued success eclipsed the competition itself as the central drama, and was the focal point of media coverage. He gave people a reason to watch at a time where ordinarily only Phil Stacey or Chris Richardson fans would have reason to burn up the phone lines.

Sanjaya was never as bad as his critics suggested. He didn’t make the semifinals by winning the weekly “text the obvious ‘Idol’ trivia answer and win a prize” sweepstakes; he got there by being among the better vocalists in a weak group of male rivals. Since then, he’s been among the worst of the contestants, but he’s rarely been bad enough that his removal was an obvious slam dunk.

Blake and LaKisha need in danger
This week, Malakar struggled through “Something to Talk About,” and was the worst of the finalists on merit. But LaKisha Jones continued her recent struggles with “Jesus Take the Wheel,” and it wasn’t a shock that she wound up in the bottom two.

The third member of the bottom three was Blake Lewis. That was surprising, and clearly annoyed the studio audience. But don’t be shocked if a favorite goes soon. With mostly strong performers remaining, someone inevitably gets sent home a few weeks too early.

This week was a particular threat for that sort of thing, with the nation riveted to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. It led to a Chris Richardson shout-out to the region on Tuesday, , followed by the usual excellent work from the show’s damage-control staff. It would take someone pretty uncharitable to really think Simon could be so callous, but it takes less of a cynic to wonder how much Richardson’s comments played into his status as one of the top three vote-getters this time around.

On a night where real events might have led to less voting and more news-watching, “Idol” got 38 million votes. That shows that either people were looking for an escape from thinking about the shootings, or that voters are talented enough to call or text their votes while also watching the news.

Those votes didn’t save Sanjaya, but not to worry. He may not have won this year’s “Idol,” but there’s no doubt he’ll benefit from the experience. He may go down as the most memorable finalist in a drabber than usual group, and by this summer he’ll be recognized more often than some of those who are still in the competition. Moreover, he gave the people something to talk about this season, and for that “Idol” fans should be grateful.

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

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