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‘Idol’ viewers are holding out for a hero

Brenna, Heather, Sway and David just couldn’t fill Carrie Underwood's shoes
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Cutdown day brought no big surprises on "American Idol," as the field was whittled down from 20 to 16. None of the four eliminated — Brenna Gethers, Heather Cox, David Radford and Sway Penala — were ever really considered threats to win the competition.

What the eliminations did show was that despite all the pre-show talk of how this season’s group of contestants would be heavy on the take-no-prisoners competitors and light on the kindhearted hopefuls of yore, the semifinalists seem to be the exact same as previous years. It may even be a more likeable group than last season, with no Scott Savol staring down the judges.

Only one contestant this year seemed to be the combative personality the producers said they were looking for, and that was Gethers (the Brittenum twins probably would have made the field as well, except for those pesky felony charges). She was the one portrayed as the "villain" from the first time she appeared in the Hollywood round. Brash, outspoken, unafraid to take on the judges or her competitors, Gethers would have been great television, had she been able to hang around.

Here’s the problem with that approach: America tends not to root for people like that. The four winners thus far — Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino and Carrie Underwood — all were very easy to cheer for.

All were people that most viewers hoped would succeed, as much for their personalities as for their talent. Even the other top finishers each season usually come across as nice people who most would be happy to see succeed in the music business — just perhaps with other people buying their albums.

Gethers’ best hope was that people would remember her, give her credit for being herself, and push her through knowing it would torture Simon. It wasn’t enough to keep her from having the fewest votes among the women, though even that wasn’t enough to dim her confidence at all. "Clive — call Nigel. Let’s make some money," she said on her way out.

Heather who?Cox was far less flashy than Gethers, and would undoubtedly never presume to be on a first-name basis with the legendary Clive Davis. Ironically that lack of flash was part of the problem.

She seemed like she was trying to be this year’s Carrie Underwood, but that’s hard to pull off with Kellie Pickler also in the competition. Neither was bound to have an easy time filling those shoes, but at least the producers gave Pickler a lot of time to tell her story. She’s been one of the favorites since her audition in Greensboro, and likely has claimed a lot of the voters who want another farmgirl to win it.

Without that angle, Cox didn’t have a fanbase and couldn’t afford a poor performance. Her rendition of Mariah Carey’s "Hero" wasn’t as bad as the judges said it was, but she needed their support. Without it, she had little chance of survival.

Kinnik Sky, who also had to stand in the circle of shame as one of the bottom three vote-getters, has a similar problem in that she doesn’t really stand out. She tried to focus on her performing abilities this week, and didn’t really showcase her voice. Of course, if she does as the judges suggested and tries that next week, they’ll probably slam her for that as well.

Members of the next rat pack need not applyWith the women’s fates decided, Ryan Seacrest turned his attention to the men. Before telling each their fate, he asked them if they thought they were in the bottom three. It was this week’s annoying tic that doesn’t do much besides take up time.

Taylor Hicks burst out with a "no, no, no" before Ryan could even finish the question, causing Seacrest to joke that what Hicks was really saying was "Just give me the news, Seacrest." He’s right, but Hicks clearly doesn’t understand the rigors of stretching five minutes of information into an hour-long show.

Hicks, of course, was safe, as were Chris Daughtry, Ace Young, and pretty much everyone who sang well on Wednesday. The only moderate surprise among the bottom three was Kevin Covais, who seemed to have a big cheering section even if he’s clearly no threat to win this competition.

Covais, Will Makar and David Radford are the three teenagers who seem out-of-place among the musical veterans, because they haven’t been able to get into a groove that makes them seem like stars-in-waiting instead of talent show contestants. While fellow teen Gedeon McKinney has been able to show some style and pick music that showcases his talents, the other haven’t had that kind of success.

Radford, the lowest vote-getter among the men, was the textbook example. His crooning might have taken him a long way had he auditioned a couple of years ago, before the increased age limit added more musical veterans to the ranks. But at this stage, being a charming personality who sings the old rat pack tunes isn’t anywhere near good enough.

To his credit, Radford seemed to realize that as well. Though he was at a loss for words and gave Seacrest a bunch of short answers to those awkward post-boot questions, he said he’d be happy to go back home and see his friends again. Kind of like a normal 17-year-old who does a Sinatra imitation suitable for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Away with SwayJose "Sway" Penala was one of those musical veterans who would have been too old to try out a couple of years ago, and he always seemed grateful for the chance the show offered. Penala’s lack of success was both bad performances and bad luck; he didn’t get much of a chance to make an impression, and didn’t do much to stand out with the chances he had. Vocally, he wasn’t one of the worst singers on Wednesday, but like Cox he wasn’t helped by the judges slamming him for daring to take on Stevie Wonder and fail.

As the men said their goodbyes, Paris Bennett was near the cameras for each farewell performance, with tears running down her face especially when Radford sang his final song. That’s the kind of camaraderie and kindness that may not please producers looking for backbiting, but is more in-tune with the attitude that has proven so successful over the show’s history.

That’s why Gethers was sent home, while Bennett remained as one of the favorites to win the competition.

Craig Berman lives in Washington, D.C. and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.