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Kill the suspense

'Idol' substitutes emotion for drama as two groups advance to the next round. By Craig Berman
/ Source: contributor

At some point, everyone in America dreams of being a pop idol. For most of us, chances are somewhere around a million to one against — and that's assuming that every member of a one-hit-wonder boy band counts.

For everyone left in the competition Tuesday night, chances were one in 75. They've come much closer than any of us to realizing their dream, and it's safe to say that almost none will ever be this close again.

That makes emotions run high. And the show producers know it, which is why they manipulated events so that emotion was the sole unknown. The judges may have been silent — no witty repartee between Simon and Ryan Seacrest this week — but all that did is spare us from the usual collection of "dawgs" and "dreadfuls." The way the show was structured, they might as well have told us in the first few minutes who advanced and who didn't. The entertainment came watching the reactions as the contestants were told their fates.

No plot twists hereThe judges did what they usually do at this stage of the game, splitting the crowd up into four rooms. But really, the question of which groups were going to advance was a no-brainer. All the viewers had to do was remember that the show's purposes are twofold: to get great ratings and sell a zillion records.

Therefore, the odds of a major plot twist were pretty remote. Those don't start coming for a couple of weeks. Once the audience starts to have its say, all bets are off, so the judges and the producers have to make sure that the people who make it to that stage are the ones who have the ability to capture a following and sell those CDs.

Take Group Four. It included Anthony Fedorov, Jaclyn Crum, Scott Savol, Mikalah Gordon and Tammy Wynette Nash. These are five of the contestants who have gotten the most airtime of anyone, and probably already have their share of fans. What were the odds that the judges were going to give them the boot?

Zero percent.

Of course, they didn't know that, since obviously none of the contestants knew at the time how much screen time they'd be getting.

The audience knew. Heck, Ryan Seacrest even told us they'd all be advancing before the judges even started to speak, just in case anyone out there was getting nervous. Therefore we could watch, with clear conscience and no nerves, as Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson put them through the wringer.

Paula, a real threat for an Emmy as soon as "Crying on Command" becomes a category, acted like she'd just put her career to sleep.

Randy was appropriately sober as well, and the already fragile crowd lost it. They'd been waiting the longest, and had already heard Group Two celebrating their advancement. All the women were in a full-fledged sobfest, while the guys were either crying or looking like they'd be sick.

And then, the judges brightened and said they were all moving on. It would serve both Paula and Randy right if they tore ACLs being tackled by the happy contestants, but at least the audience got to see that some of the more confident singers can be basket cases off the stage.

Group Two wasn't as talented, but its fate was equally predictable.

The first group had been given the boot already, it was a pretty good bet that two of the final four would advance, and therefore there would be no drama if both of the first two groups got the bad news.

Besides, there were some pretty good acts in this crew: the entertaining Jamar Jefferson, country girl Carrie Underwood, likeable rocker Constantine Maroulis, D.C. teacher Anwar Robinson and the man with the hat, Mario Vazquez.

Who wanted that crew to go home? Not the audience, and not the judges.

They live, at least until tomorrow's show.

Going home empty handed
The other two groups were not so fortunate. And the story there wasn't that the groups were made up of no-talent rejects. Everyone who made it this far has talent, and are good enough to dream of winning this competition. Just not good enough to actually do it, at least not right now.

Take a look at the first group, the only one whose fate was truly unpredictable. It boasted singing cocktail waitress Sharon Galvez, music teacher Angel Hicks, and youth pastor and all-around nice guy Sean McNeill. It also featured Rashida Johnson, who'd been fighting a cold all week, and Shunta Worthen who nearly missed her first Hollywood audition.

All of them seemed like neat people, and good stories. But nobody made the judges, or the audience, really stand up and say "Wow, this person is great!"

So it wasn't much of a shock when Paula and Randy came in, gave their usual "We have never heard such amazing talent" speech, and then proceeded to send everybody packing. The judges told everybody to "keep the journey going," but if the contestants laying on the floor crying were any indication, many knew that they'd just stared the chance of a lifetime in the face and come up a little bit short.

Group Three was similar, but just talented enough to really have some hope. Aa'shia Jackson, the 17-year-old who was one of the best entertainers and unquestionably the most confident of the contestants, told her roommates not to worry, that the talent in the room was too good to turn down. Tammy Wynnete Nash would have said the same had she seen that Larry Ellis was there, since she'd told the camera that "If I'm in the room with Larry Ellis, I know I'm going through."

But she wasn't – and Larry wasn't. Looking at the group's reaction to Aa'shia Jackson's confidence, you wonder if they knew they had come up just a little short in their final shot. Ross Williams was the one who said it, lamenting after his performance that "I could have done better. Sixty seconds of my life could have flipped it off course from what it could be." He had a shot at being this year's John Stevens, the crooner with appeal, but he had to have seen that Jackson sang like she'd inhaled helium and everyone else was pretty blah.

Still, the emotions ran high when the judges delivered the bad news.

As they commiserated with their fellow dejected rejects from Group One, one of them asked, "what's wrong with us?"

It may have been a rhetorical question, but another competitor had the perfect answer. "We're just not what they're looking for."

If it's any comfort, they'll be far from the last to have their dreams crushed within shouting distance of their goal. Forty-four people made it out of Hollywood. Only 24 will actually make the semifinals. On Wednesday, 20 people who may have thought they'd already made it will get their hopes cruelly dashed, as “America Idol” once again plays to their, and our, emotions.

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