American Idol Recap: Gentle Goes Into That Good Night

America has its problems right now, but the country is on the right track in one important respect: people are paying more attention to me. The three American Idol performers who I felt did the best job in Wednesday's semifinal were the three moved on to the final twelve. This sort of exact match between singing quality and voting success is unusual on Idol, where outside factors such as personality, previous airtime, and Southern accent tend to be more determinative.

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Ryan Seacrest announced that voting went up again this week, to 25 million; and while one might think extra votes would make the result more superficial, it does seem that the American people are taking their job seriously, or at least more seriously than Nick "Norman Gentle" Mitchell took his Idol sojourn. How else to explain the survival of Kris Allen, which was so unexpected I'm not sure it can be compared with anything else in Idol annals?

Allen did a fine job on Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" on Wednesday, but he wasn't so awesome as to truly stand out, and while the judges were complimentary to him, they were even more so towards Megan Corkrey. And pre-semifinal publicity, so critical to forming early voting support, was nearly absent in the case of Kris. He had been seen as part of one of the groups in Hollywood, but was otherwise an unknown coming into this week. The other five men from the semifinal all had their auditions shown with accompanying full interview packages. Allen should have had no chance at all unless he completely tore the roof off the studio, but the voters, to their credit, ignored previous publicity and put through the guy who was one of the three best on Wednesday.

On the other hand, the status of Allison Iraheta as top female vote-getter was much easier to predict, after her star-making take on "Alone." None of the other women in her semifinal had really gotten the full Idol star treatment; only Jasmine Murray had been seen in both the audition and Hollywood phase. And while the show has not mentioned it to this point, Allison won a talent contest on Telemundo three years ago, making her a known quantity to a certain segment of the audience. What remains to be seen is if she is really the prodigy she seemed to be on Wednesday, or if this is a case of an otherwise average contestant catching lightning in a bottle (even Ramiele Malubay had one huge week last season, which bought her the chance to stink for another six weeks afterward). Her lack of polish while being interviewed might not be a plus, although it's good to see a showbiz kid on Idol who seems not to have gone through a decade of media training already.

The producers still aren't quite getting it right when it comes to manufacturing drama for these semifinal results shows. Allison was announced as the first one through to the final twelve, and Seacrest then brought up a new group of four, one of whom would be the next finalist picked: Kris, Megan, Matt Giraud, and Jeanine Vailes. But since one woman had already been chosen and both Jasmine and Mishavonna Henson were still waiting to hear their fates, it stood to reason that the second semifinalist had to be male.

No more successful was the Idol tactic of saving Adam Lambert and Nick Mitchell for the very end. We saw this last week with Danny and Tatiana: would America pick the judges' favorite or the train wreck? Norman's survival might have been considered plausible at any other point in the show -- there's no doubt that he has a fanbase of sorts. But there was no way he would ever have enough like-minded subversive support to topple Adam, who just might have the voice that can unite this show's small but fierce Broadway fan contingent and its even smaller cohort of metalheads. And this is the second straight week that Idol has forsaken drama so it can guarantee that a producers' pet can close the show, so they won't be letting Adam go without a fight.

The stress of trying to stretch three minutes of news into forty minutes of show on results night is already evident, as Idol was forced to kill time Thursday by rerunning the inspirational montage that led off the first episode of the season. There was also a welcome reappearance by my sentimental favorite from Season Seven, Brooke White, who sounded excellent removed from the stress that had turned her into a quivering blonde puddle by last May. The group performance, of Ne-Yo's "Closer," was noteworthy for the game efforts of rhythm-challenged contestants like Megan and Matt Breitzke (the gang at Welding Central won't soon let him forget it), and for the predictable clowning by Nick.

With the final twelve already containing four males and just two females, and with Anoop Desai a heavy favorite to get one wild card slot, I would be surprised if any of this week's unsuccessful males get further consideration when the wild card round takes place next week. However, the judges are very fond of both Jasmine and Megan, and both are sure to get a second chance. Jesse Langseth should get to join them too, despite the lack of excitement about her. The judges must not feel Jesse is commercial, because she seems to have the personality they claim that they are looking for.

And what of Nick Mitchell? Will Norman Gentle become just another footnote in Idol history, a curiosity pulled out of the memory bank whenever future editions of the show run their own retrospective montages? Or can he actually cobble together a career of sorts? While I don't doubt we'll be seeing a lot of him on television over the next few months (he's a natural for the May season finale), I am skeptical that he has long-term prospects for fame. Norman did make me laugh several times over the last month, but much of the humor was derived from the inappropriateness of it all: the fact that he was doing his act on American Idol. Away from the show, he will have to compete against the finest the drag world has to offer, among others. I wish him well, but I hope his expectations are tempered.