In the penultimate "American Idol" performance episode of the season three was the magic number: three hopefuls left, three songs each and three judges -- only one of whom did anything useful (Simon, of course). But only one question remains. Who deserves to lose to Melinda Doolittle in the finale?

In the penultimate “American Idol” performance episode of the season three was the magic number: three hopefuls left, three songs each and three judges — only one of whom did anything useful (Simon, of course). But only one question remains. Who deserves to lose to Melinda Doolittle in the finale?

Each contestant sang a song chosen by a judge, a song chosen by the producers and a song of their own choice. Doolittle emerged victorious in each round. The woman has truly not had a weak performance the entire season.

I think Jordin is her closest competition. She has a big voice but has been plagued by inconsistency. If she makes it to the finale and is given the right songs, she could be formidable competition. And Blake just continued his trend of waffling between karaoke and overdoing the whole annoying beatbox routine. Do you both think it will be an all-girl final two?

Phil Gallo: Absolutely. Blake has become so one-dimensional — as a vocalist and as a live performer — that it hurts to watch him. The best job for him is a Jamiroquai cover band, but you have to figure that he’ll be invited to sing the national anthem at mall openings and such, beat-boxing his way through “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh say can you see-ee-ee-ee.” Jordin has some star quality inside her; if she goes home tonight, she returns in three years in movie.

Joe Adalian: For entertainment value, Melinda-Blake would work better. More contrasting styles, more potentials for interesting “surprise” celeb pairings. Melinda and Jordin would feel more like the Tina Turner-Beyonce Variety Hour. That said, Jordin deserves to be there more than Blake. Melinda-Jordin also sets up the finale as a battle between vocal chops and youthful energy.

Five seasons of “Idol” have produced a slew of artists who’ve released at least one album and several who have carved out careers on Broadway. It also spawned an Oscar-winning actress in Jennifer Hudson. But we’ve seen only two bonafide music stars emerge. The original “American Idol” Kelly Clarkson and season 4 winner Carrie Underwood both continue to receive critical kudos while racking up hardware at awards shows. I don’t see a star emerging from this season although I think Jordin and Melinda will manage moderate album sales. Do either of you see a superstar in the final three or will they go the way of Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks?

Gallo: No superstar power here, but the vehicle for all of these singers who have had success has been the single. The right song could change minds quickly about how good the performer might be.

Adalian: Actually, I would add Chris Daughtry — excuse me, just Daughtry — to the list of breakouts. I don’t think any of this trio is likely to be monstrously big. In another era, Melinda might’ve been able to be a new Anita Baker, but that sort of easy listening music isn’t working big time these days. And while Jordin has got the youthful dynamic of Kelly, her personality isn’t as winning, nor is her voice big enough. I’d actually like to see Lakisha become a dance diva, heading up a new Weather Girls or LaBouche, perhaps.

Randy Jackson contributed very little to the proceedings, name-dropping even via fax and recycling the same tired phrases and offering them up as critiques: “You’re in it to win it,” “You blew it out the box,” “You worked it out baby,” blah blah, blah. But he did make a point of giving the contestants a tidbit of advice on what to do on their first albums. Win or lose, all three will inevitably have a record coming out in the next 18 months. I see Jordin doing something like a fresh-faced Whitney Houston did on her first album 20 years ago by focusing on power ballads. She’s got to keep it young though. She tends to choose older, almost maudlin songs like last night’s “I Who Have Nothing,” which she trotted out again despite the fact that Simon hated it when she sang it earlier in the season. Guess what? He didn’t like it much this time either. Melinda should play up her range; the girl can sing anything. Although she claimed during Bon Jovi week to be uncomfortable with rock songs, give her a Tina Turner cover and she nails it. And Blake should probably form his own boy band. I’m not sure I see much of a solo career in his future.

What advice would you give these three?

Gallo: Blake needs a band — a pop rock band like Maroon 5. If he had a foil or two in a band, like a guitarist and a DJ, his playfulness could be groomed into an act. Jordin should exploit her big voice and her ethnicity, and attempt to find a middle ground between Shakira and Mariah Carey. Melinda should race to a Southern studio the day after “Idol” ends and record a dozen covers of relatively obscure soul songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Let the album slip out as a primer of what is in store when she finally releases her own album of originals. The more that album shows some grit the better — she should be covering the same turf Joss Stone is exploring in her career.

Adalian: Jordin should funk it up a bit. She’s got to get young and edgy — maybe become a black Pink. Remember, Kelly didn’t really hit it big until she declared her independence, rocking out to “Since You’ve Been Gone.” Blake, meanwhile, should avoid becoming the next lead singer for Maroon 5 and immediately work on some commercial urban cred. Nothing too hardcore — i.e., real hip hop — but maybe a duet with Fergie or one of the other Peas. His instinct to go risky is one of his best qualities; he just needs someone with a brain to tell him the difference between smart and silly. As for Melinda, I just don’t see her becoming a Kiss FM staple. She should stick to power ballads and love songs done with soul — a new Patti LaBelle.

Just one week left and then we need to wait until January to do it all over again. I’m looking forward to the Steven Spielberg-backed “On the Lot,” Fox’s next big search for a star. Any reality shows intrigue you while we wait for “Idol” to suck us in again?

Gallo: It’s all about the cooking now. “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Adalian: Well, there’s the Band Camp version of “American Idol” in the fall that could be intriguing. “Pirate Master” could be campy fun. But really, summer is about one thing: “Big Brother,” baby. I’m so glad the all-stars are out and a new crop of victims is about to enter Julie Chen’s House of Horrors.

Lyford: I forgot about “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” two guilty pleasures I’m really looking forward to. And “Project Runway,” which begins later in summer.

(Phil Gallo is an associate editor of Daily Variety; Josef Adalian is a TV editor.)

American Idol: Week 18

Fox, Tue., May 8, 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.
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