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Time to face the judges

  By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The final step before the finals is the “American Idol” tribunal. Each of the remaining 44 hopefuls, with no lawyer present, has to get out of the elevator and take the long walk across the hardwood to sit in an uncomfortable chair in front of the table where Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson sit in judgment.

None of the hopefuls really know the variables that will determine whether the news is good or bad, and none know whether they will be accepted or rejected for solid reasons or superficial ones. There is no right to appeal. And while it goes beyond the boundaries of good taste to take the comparison to a courtroom much further, it's easy to make a case that in some cases the judges' actions consisted of cruel and unusual punishments.

That having been said, justice was ultimately done. At the end of the day, there were few surprises among the finalists.

Many of the men were easy to predict, since this year's crop doesn't seem to be as deep as last season's. Contributing to that was the dismissal of the Brittenum twins, who got rejected in an off-camera aside with an oh-by-the-way-they-got-arrested vignette. While being arrested on felony charges doesn't fit the "Idol" model, it still was a cheap way to be rid of the two people that producers made the centerpiece of the Hollywood round.

Of the remaining contestants, Brett "Ace" Young looks to be the early candidate for the "heartthrob" label, while Chris Daughtry is the "rocker" and Taylor Hicks the "guy who looks like your father and sings like he's escaped from a 70s band."

It's also a crop heavy on the crooners, with David Radford, William Makar and Kevin Covais all getting the good news. The trio should have high-school girls text-messaging votes at record rates.

The women featured some similar no-brainers. Of course Paris Bennett was going to get through — the judges have loved her every step of the way, plus she's really good. Of course Kellie Pickler was a no-brainer; after all, Carrie Underwood won it all last year, and Pickler has that same homespun appeal plus the tugs-on-the-heartstrings background.

Lisa Tucker was Simon's star 16-year-old, and the only question mark about her was her age, but if she could play a role in a major theatre production in the big city, odds were pretty small that she'd fall victim to the pressure. She didn't, and the judges kept her in the competition.

Ayla Brown hasn't gotten much airtime since her Boston audition — but reached the finals anyway, which probably pleased everyone she knows except for the Boston College women's basketball coaches, who have to be wondering if she'll actually make it to campus to honor her scholarship this fall.

Rebecca O'Donohue likewise played basketball in college, likewise auditioned in Boston, likewise had no screen time in Hollywood, and likewise made it through. Her basketball coach is likely thrilled, since she's used up her eligibility anyway.

Of course, not every decision is so obvious. There were moments of genuine drama. Unlike in previous seasons, the judges decided to get a lot of the bad news over with early, as the first seven contestants shown on Wednesday's show were rejected. Until Katherine McPhee made it through, it looked like this "Idol" season might end before St. Patrick's Day because the judges couldn't find enough qualified candidates.  

This uncertainty was particularly apparent with some of the women.

Mandisa Hundley made it through in the Chicago tryouts, but after she left the room Simon mused about whether they'd need a bigger stage this season, referring to her weight. That's been the Simon comment that's struck perhaps the biggest negative chord this season, and she had her chance to vent on Simon before judgment was pronounced.

When Hundley opened with "You didn't need a bigger stage, but I could have used a bigger chair," it looked like viewers might get some Brittenum-esque drama. But instead she said that she forgave Simon, and Simon smiled and said "I'm just so appalling, aren't I?"

Even more shocking, he later actually apologized, and Hundley made it into the finals.

Brenna Gethers was another question mark, mainly because in a competition where it helps to be likable, she seems to be the kind of person that would cause most to take the stairs rather than share an elevator with her.

Gethers openly feuded with the rest of her group members in Hollywood, called Simon out for not being a comedian, and in general seemed to take it for granted that the competition was hers for the taking and that everyone else was wasting their time. When the producers said before the season started that there would be more contentious personalities, Brenna Gethers was likely who they were talking about.

Simon summed up what the contestants were feeling: "I think you could be a nightmare. I think you could be difficult, precocious, impossible to work with — some would say a nightmare."

And then she got the good news, and echoed what the producers must have been feeling: "Let's go, let's do it.  Let's make good TV."

Then there were the unknowns. Melissa McGhee, Stephanie Scott and Heather Cox haven't gotten a ton of airtime, but will get their chance to make an impression on the viewers in the finals.

The men had some similar question marks and "who's he?" moments, mainly because it seems like the only ones who got much on-screen time were those Brittenum twins.

Jose "Sway" Penala got to celebrate his 28th birthday with some good news, and little-seen David "Bucky" Covington and Gedeon McKinney joined him. Patrick Hall, who has sounded good in his few seconds of TV time thus far, sailed through without much doubt.

Elliott Yamin, known mainly for turning in early instead of rehearsing during the group stage, thus causing Terrell Brittenum to melt down, attempt to throw him under the bus, and then play nice with him afterward, moved on as well.  Robert Bennett, Jr. had one of the best lines after getting the good news: "I can't breathe. This is not for fat people. You need to be in shape for this — I'm going into cardiac arrest."

Of course, this wouldn't be "American Idol" without a final bit of cruelty. When the men and women were each down to two contestants for one spot, both hopefuls had to go up and hear their fates together.

The final two girls were Kinnik Sky and Megan Bobo, with Bobo being told she … was going home. The guys were William Makar and Sid Harcourt with Makar being told he was … going onto the finals. The results in both cases were bittersweet for the winners, who couldn't really jump up and down cheering in front of someone who just got their dreams kicked in.

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