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‘Idol’ season is most unpredictable ever

"American Idol" seasons usually fall into some pretty standard patterns, but the 2009 season has surprised from day one. Even the wild-card round is up for grabs, although Tatiana Del Toro and Norman Gentle have good shots.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

This season of "American Idol," the show's eighth, may well be the most unpredictable yet.

Earlier seasons have had plenty of surprises. Some frontrunners have been booted (Tamyra Gray, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry), while lesser lights far exceeded the expectations of the judges, and occasionally the audience (Sanjaya Malakar, John Stevens, Carmen Rasmusen). And in one instance, the show found itself with a winner (Taylor Hicks) that it really didn't know what to do with.

Still, those surprises were relatively small, doing little to derail the freight train of inevitability that drives "Idol." In previous years, there's been a soothing predictability to the way that dispensable contestants were obvious and the competition was structured to cull them quickly. This season, however, there's a distinct sense that everything's up in the air.

Part of that is due to the increase in the number of semifinalists from 24 to 36. That should make it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff, but the effect has been more like adding noise to a signal. There's more room for error, and any individual's chances of making the top 12 drop from one-in-two to one-in-three.

Not helping matters is the return of the semifinals format of the first three seasons. Instead of eliminating the lowest vote-getters each week, there's now a build-up model that passes three contestants through each week. As a result, the normal rules don't apply, throwing things wide open.

Once again, singers are blessed or cursed with whichever group they compete in. Group 1 was a perfect example. It was overstuffed with frontrunners, meaning that some of the supposed sure things (Anoop Desai, Stevie Wright and Ann Marie Boskovich) were destined to go home. The same thing happened in Group 2, where two unknowns who would have been disposable in any other season — Allison Iraheta and Kris Allen — made it to the top 12 over early favorites Jasmine Murray, Kai Kalama, Megan Corkrey and Matt Giraud.

Wild-card show could be wildThe March 5 wild-card show is sure to save some of them, but there's a great deal of uncertainty as to how it's going to pan out. Rumors have been popping up that the wild-card group might include people who were cut from the competition even before the final 36 was finalized.

Still, even in a season determined to keep the audience on its toes, it'd be wise to bet on drama queen Tatiana Del Toro and flamboyant comedian Nick "Norman Gentle" Mitchell to make the wild-card show. The real surprise was that they made the top 36 in the first place, since it marks the first time that the show has explicitly pushed any contestants through to the voting rounds more for their antics than for their singing. (Sanjaya and last season's Kristy Lee Cook effectively took matters into their own hands when things started going south.)

That makes anything they do a surprise, whether it's Del Toro playing it straight (if creepily understated) on "Saving All My Love For You" or Mitchell delivering an chaotic, Andy Kaufmanesque trainwreck on "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going." In both cases, the judges' admission that they weren't half-bad revealed that they never expected the singers to be good in the first place.

It seems like a case of "Idol" trying awfully hard to let us know that the show is in on the joke, too, while also baiting notorious Web site Vote For The Worst.com by handing up potential candidates for their endorsement.

But it says something about the anything-goes feel of the current "Idol" that there was actual, genuine suspense that Del Toro and Mitchell might actually make the top 12 over golden boys Danny Gokey and Adam Lambert.

Actually, who are we kidding? Gokey get eliminated? No season is that unpredictable. 

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.