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Judges Still Too Soft and Show Still Needs Simon, but That Was the Best Results Show in 10 Seasons

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Judann Pollack
Judann Pollack

Yesterday, I got a press release from E-Poll Market Research saying it had the numbers to prove that "American Idol" this season "seems to have stemmed the tide of negative audience opinion, with viewers having a positive outlook on the show's future."

This might come as a shock if you've read my columns on the rebranding of "Idol," but I'm one of them.

Let's clarify: I stand by everything I've written so far. The judges -- even zany darling Steven Tyler -- have been too soft (though notably in the last week Jennifer Lopez, in particular, has toughened up by offering strong constructive criticism.) I still miss Simon. And the mentoring by uber-music producers is over the top. But what's winning me over, as well as the rest of America, is the heart and soul of "Idol": rooting for the kid next door.

In recent weeks the contestants have become flesh and blood to us, and thanks to the show's addition of Twitter, we feel like we know them personally. We're invested in them. We care whether they win or lose.

'American Idol'
'American Idol' Credit: Fox

That all came home on last night's program, which to my mind was the best results show in 10 seasons. It was true "Idol," silly and cheesy and packed with delights, such as a surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder, who sang "Happy Birthday" to Steven Tyler as kooky animal-print iced cake was presented to him.

Footage was rolled of the contestants in the mansion they until recently shared (oddly, for all the attempts at ginned-up drama by the producers, the fact that the Idols were scared off from the mansion supposedly due to paranormal activity was glossed over). In the tape, scruffy rocker James Durbin effused about his love of wrestling -- and then, in real time, the curtain lifted and out walked Hulk Hogan as Durbin's jaw scraped the ground. He was so genuinely bowled over and flustered to meet his own idol that it made for great TV.

The thing, though, that really turned the tide was the famous "bottom three." This week, the least number of votes were held by waiflike Thia Megia, dockworker Stefano Langone and fan favorite Casey Abrams. The blogs and social networks had been abuzz all day that either Thia or Stefano was going to get the boot, Thia for a tepid take on "Heat Wave" and Stefano for murdering Lionel Ritchie's "Hello," an error compounded by the fact that it is a song that made "Idol" history because of an unforgettable rendition by David Cook.

The stunner was that neither was out. When Ryan Seacrest announced that Casey was the one going home, the audience shrieked and booed; Twitter went riot with indignation. This is a brand with plenty of engagement: the reaction was so visceral that tweeters on the west coast started asking east coasters to fill them in. Timelines lit up with "Save Casey!" in hopes the judges would use their one "save" to keep him in the competition.

He was singing, as "Idol" is wont to say, for his life when the judges, uncharacteristically, cut him off in mid note before the end of the first verse. Casey blanched. The room went silent. Tweeting stopped. Breath was held.

And then Steven Tyler said, "This is crazy wrong. We made a decision to keep you in."

As the theater erupted in foot-stomping joy, Casey -- who had been hospitalized earlier in the competition -- started to literally quake. He clutched his chest with shaking hands, sweat beaded his forehead, he blanched pure white and half of America started to dial 911. Even Ryan Seacrest looked ready to get the paddles.

In what came close to becoming an FCC field day, there was an all-time record of four-letter word bleeps while Casey reacted in shock. He cried, dropped to his knees and hugged Seacrest, leapt into the audience and lifted his mom in the air, who could be heard saying "I love you so much." He clapped hands with the judges, ran back onto the stage and mouthed, to his parents but seemingly to all of America, "I'm gonna make you proud."

I've railed in this space about the producers trying to add artificial drama to "Idol," but the truth is they don't need to. There is enough inherently in the show.

E-Poll's release says the show has turned the tide "on a combination of judges' personality, viewer involvement, charismatic finalists and strong performances. For 'Idol' to stay at the top, all of the elements have to be in sync." And right now, they sure are.

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