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Farewell, Reality (Spring '07 Edition)

I was all prepared to spend my first American Idol-related commentary in months urging AI-haters to watch the finale and check out Melinda Doolittle, an impassioned performer with the kind of mature voice and blocky body-type that defies everything people who don't watch AI think the show is about.

Then Melinda got voted off last week.

I can't say that I'm all that excited about tonight's showdown between Jordin Sparks, a pleasant-enough teenage theater geek ready to be molded by the industry, and Blake Lewis, a clever music theory geek whose beatboxing and remixing may be innovative for this show, but won't be anything special once he leaves the AI cocoon. I'm pulling for Jordin, if only because she's shown the capacity to inject real emotion into dusty old pop songs. Blake's far too wonky, and he can't really sing all that well. His standout performance this season–a flipped-out rendition of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love A Bad Name"–was exciting not just because of the hip-hop workout, but because he actually sang, full-out, maybe for the first time all season.

By and large, Melinda aside, this has been a phenomenally dull season of American Idol, and one that may indicate that some kind of shake-up is in order, either with the format or of the people in charge. I'd start by replacing the judges, whose pat patter and bored expressions don't exactly generate much enthusiasm. They picked bland contestants, then had nothing helpful to say to them. Also, none of the three seems to be cut out for the demands of a live telecast anymore. Acting lazily imperious, with his big contract and big ratings, Simon Cowell frequently squanders his few minutes of airtime on confusing banter with Paula Abdul and Ryan Seacrest. And since he's generally the only judge with any taste or insight, little of value was imparted during the critiques this season. Does anyone have the power to tell these guys to shape up next year, or has entropy inevitably taken hold?

I had a lot more fun this year watching Dancing With The Stars, a show I quit on after the first season, once I realized that no celebrity was going to be bad enough or good enough to watch every week, and that I was never going to understand what the over-supportive judges were looking for. I tuned in this year because we've got a dual-tuner DVR now that can hold more shows and record two channels at once, and since I've been stealthily dropping shows that my wife enjoyed (goodbye, Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives!), I thought I'd make a conciliatory move by bringing that dancing show she likes back into our regular rotation. I picked the right season to do it, too: one in which some stars really were bad enough and good enough to watch every week.

The bad ones are long gone, of course. No more Clyde "The Glide" Drexler barely showing up. No more Billy Ray Cyrus clomping around the stage and then getting pissy at the judges' "people at home seem to like you, even though you suck" condescension. Instead, the final three celebs are all actually exciting and agile: short-track speed-skater Apollo Anton Ohno, boxing champ Laila Ali, and former N'Sync-er Joey Fatone. Joey's the ringer here. He's done musical theater and has spent most of his life on-stage, which means he knows how to entertain, and he does just that, flat-out. Laila's been fun to see develop from merely athletic to actually elegant, although she's really only got a couple of moves. It's Apollo who's been the real surprise, using his compact body in explosive bursts of movement, and growing increasingly comfortable with the idea of performing.

People often wonder what I get out of these kinds of shows–I guess because they never believe my answer, which hasn't changed for five years. I like to see people show off their skills when the pressure's on–and I especially like it when they push themselves beyond their perceived capabilities. The problem with American Idol this season has been that nearly everyone–from the contestants to the judges–has stayed at the same level of smug mediocrity. But when Dancing With The Stars started four months ago, Apollo was a rank amateur, and now he can really dance. It's cheesy, yes, but damned if it isn't also kind of moving.