Let's hear it for the boy: Simon Cowell has blossomed as the most honest man on American television. The "American Idol" bad boy excels at speaking his mind freely, accurately recapping "Idol" performances better than his fellow judges, and gives the Fox smash its soul. The refreshing jolt this season is that America has agreed with him, booting off one borderline contestant after another. And now that the singing pool is reduced to six, it's rather amazing that only two or three of them show any signs of originality or charisma, key components for anyone attempting to get a recording contract sans an amateur contest.

Let’s hear it for the boy: Simon Cowell has blossomed as the most honest man on American television. The “American Idol” bad boy excels at speaking his mind freely, accurately recapping “Idol” performances better than his fellow judges, and gives the Fox smash its soul. The refreshing jolt this season is that America has agreed with him, booting off one borderline contestant after another. And now that the singing pool is reduced to six, it’s rather amazing that only two or three of them show any signs of originality or charisma, key components for anyone attempting to get a recording contract sans an amateur contest.

Last week Cowell and fellow judge Randy Jackson questioned Nadia Turner’s choice of an obscure Crystal Gayle hit, and the selection played into sending her home. Meanwhile, Vonzell Solomon, a modest talent for most of the competition, found a perfect crowd-pleaser in Denise Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” — upbeat, simple, easy to sing — and her delivery gave the aud a reason to believe in her.

On a number of counts, it’s intriguing the show has turned out this way this season. The year opened with Fox execs wondering whether the show had run its course, and producers worked hard, and subtly, to give the show a different flavor than in the first three years. They dubbed two long-haired contestants “rockers” and went deeper into their backgrounds than into those of other singers. Producers placed the more esoteric-looking contestants closest to host Ryan Seacrest on group shots.

They got Paula Abdul to toughen up, but that didn’t last, and, in the apparent belief that kids like repetition and buzz words, the judges went overboard repeating certain phrases. (Cowell’s one serious fault: referring to perfs as “cabaret,” which he doesn’t seem to think is a high-level art form. Barbara Cook, at 78, can sing rings around these twentysomethings).

Themes in season four have felt less forced and less celebrity-driven than in previous years, and contestants have seemingly been able to make decisions for themselves, doing what feels right.

That’s where so many of them go wrong. Sure, “American Idol” attracts every Whitney wannabe working karaoke bars, but this season has revealed how far below the bar of the “Idol” idols these singers are. We have heard songs of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Darryl Hall, Gregg Allman and Houston delivered with alarming mediocrity. Some are characterless, others are full of bum notes; most are just OK.

The contestants generally take the criticism better than in previous years; sadly, Abdul’s pep talks have turned into unintelligible random thoughts that don’t help anyone.

Most problematic about the season is that a trifle like Lionel Ritchie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” can sound exciting in this context.

Hence, as the competition is whittled down, the smart performers will find more “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” equivalents and shy from bringing their own personality to the likes of “Moon River.” Unfortunately, the contest ultimately rewards the person who plays it safe the best.

One hopes the talented two who have excelled all season — Carrie Underwood and Anwar Robinson — play into America’s hands and end up in the finale.

American Idol

Series; Fox; Tue. 8 p.m., Wed. 9 p.m.

Production

Taped in Los Angeles by FremantleMedia North America and 19 TV. Executive producers, Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Simon Fuller; supervising producer, Charles Boyd; producers, Simon Lythgoe, Megan Michaels; director, Bruce Gowers.

Crew

Production design, Andy Walmsley; lighting, Kieran Healy; musical director, Rickey Minor; supervising editor, Bill DeRonde. 60 MIN.

Cast

Host: Ryan Seacrest.

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