It was hard to put your finger on what made last night's "American Idol" such an unsatisfying hour. It could have been that this was the first week the show cut back from two hour episodes, which would account for the ungainly pacing, including the award show-like moment when the band cut off Simon Cowell in mid-sentence. . .

It was hard to put your finger on what made last night’s “American Idol” such an unsatisfying hour (or to be more precise, an hour and seven minutes). It could have been that this was the first week the show cut back from two hour episodes, which would account for the ungainly pacing, including the award show-like moment when the band cut off Simon Cowell in mid-sentence (“this isn’t the Oscars,” he protested).

Even the usually unflappable Ryan Seacrest seemed a little off his game; his interactions with the contestants and judges lacked his usual polish. Add in musical guest Gwen Stefani, who established very little rapport with the contestants, Paula Abdul’s relatively coherent commentary and generally less-than-stellar perfs from the final 10 and you’re left with the most lackluster “Idol” so far this season, if not in the skein’s six-year history.

When Sunjaya Malakar’s truly awful rendition of No Doubt’s “Bathwater,” and his latest, appalling hairstyle (a series of pony tails along the top of the head that can only be called a “po’ hawk”) were the evening’s most memorable moments, something’s seriously off. 

Stefani, in particular, seemed like a terribly wrong-headed choice. While she has sold millions of albums, it’s safe to say her voice would not get her past the second round of this competition. The lack of warmth seen in her interactions with the contestants could be blamed on the hourlong format’s truncated introductory packages, but her standoffish body language (the contestants appeared to be instructed to stand at least 10 paces away from the star) only emphasized the chilliness. 

And judging by their performances, her advice to the contestants was of little help. She admitted that most of the songs she chose were not written for the big voices “Idol” favors, and when she advised a couple of singers to tone down the runs that usually get the studio audiences to their feet (and home viewers to vote), you had to wonder if she really understood the show. And following Chris Robinson’s sleepwalking perf of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” Randy Jackson directly contradicted her, reminding the Justin Timberlake-manqué that he’s a singer who can make those melismatic flourishes work. 

Robinson, like the rest of the this week’s contestants, failed to deliver the kind of show-stoppers expected from “Idol” at this juncture. There were two standouts: Melinda Doolittle was reliably effective, although her version of Donna Summer’s “Heaven Knows” was more memorable for it’s energy than anything else, and Gina Glocksen (whose mini-skirt was as abbreviated as the hot pants worn by Haley Scarnato last week) finally decided to ditch her Evanescence impressions and nailed the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You.” The rest of the pack appeared to be fighting it out for the bottom three. 

In descending order: Jordin Sparks singing No Doubt’s “Hey Baby” was youthful and effervescent, but it’s hardly a taxing song. Phil Stacey wasn’t bad on “Every Breath You Take,” but he lacked passion, sounding less like an obsessed lover than a tired cop on the third day of a stake-out. Blake Lewis’ soporific “Love Song” sounded like he was mad that Stacey got to sing “Every Step,” so he rearranged the Cure’s song so it sounded like the Police hit.

LaKisha Jones’ “Last Dance” was just OK, nothing more; absent the hot pants, Scarnato’s performance of “True Colors” was rather pallid. The biggest disappointment had to be Chris Sleigh. This was a week he should have shined, but his decision to sing the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” pointed up his biggest weakness — he can’t swing. That’s not a real problem with you’re singing modern rock, with it’s strict up and down rhythms, but give him something with a slippery time signature and he’s lost. It would have been the worst perf of the night, if not for Malakar. 

How bad was Sunjaya? It was epic in its awfulness; so off-key and listlessly offered, it practically dared his fans to throw out their baby with the “Bathwater.” So bad, it could erase all memory of past “Idol” train wrecks, including Jon Peter Lewis and William Hung; so bad it was possible to believe Internet posts that Stefani was so upset that after rehearsals, she lobbied EP Nigel Lythgoe to keep him from singing any No Doubt tune; so bad while real dogs across the nation over were probably howling in pain, “dawg pound” leader Jackson was left speechless and Cowell was left to complain there was nothing left to say. Even the relentlessly positive Abdul could only shake her head and tell him he had a nice voice. 

In a season where even some of “Idol’s” most devoted fans have been grousing about the quality of the contestants, if Idol is able to withstand a night of such mediocrity, it will only reinforce the sense that when it comes to ratings, “Idol” is truly bulletproof. 

Results:
Bottom 3: Chris Sligh, Haley Scarnato, Phil Stacey
Bottom 2: Sligh and Scarnato
Voted off: Sligh

American Idol - Week 11

Fox, Tue., March 27, 8 p.m.

Production

Taped in Los Angeles by 19 Prods. Executive producers, Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Simon Fuller; director, Bruce Gowers.

Crew

Running time: 1 HOUR.
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