Mark Harris
May 14, 2008 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Something is wrong with American Idol, and here’s the surprise: American Idol knows it. It’s not the ratings; they’re down, but after nearly six years, a plunge was inevitable. And it’s not the contestants: Some past seasons may have showcased more talent, but this year’s final sing-off on May 20 will almost surely be livelier than last year’s Jordin-Sparks-vs.-beatbox-guy minor-league championship, or 2006’s clash of the titans between Soul Patrol and McWhatshername.

The problem is that this year, more than ever, Idol seems to view itself as a worn-out machine. You can hear the cynicism when Simon Cowell, in a tone of bored royalty, praises a contestant’s ”smart” song choice after they caterwaul about God or America in order to avoid weepily waving farewell while Ruben Studdard ominously ”celebrates” them home. Simon isn’t complimenting them; he’s announcing that he thinks the show’s phoning and texting voters are dull, easily herded sheep who listen half-attentively for ”values” buzzwords, and he’s congratulating the singers for realizing they can game the system. And the system — rather than a fun alternative to it — is what American Idol now represents.

Yes, it’s still a monster, but the Frankenstein stitches are showing. You can see the strain each time Ryan Seacrest manfully glues on his ”earnest” expression while explaining yet again that Paula Abdul is a valued member of the Idol family, even though the night before, her head appeared to fall off her shoulders and roll down the aisle like a bowling ball as she judged a song Jason Castro hadn’t sung yet. You can spot the malaise when the camera catches the judging panel staring into space or looking anywhere but the stage. And you can sense the grimness of every taped segment in which a contestant mumbles some strenuously coached niceties about how Andrew Lloyd Webber is ”the dude” or Neil Diamond is ”amazing,” even as their body language suggests that they are about to endure the equivalent of a very long car trip to Grandma’s.

With their annual repetition, some of the things that have always been irritating about Idol seem even more so: the carnival of Day of the Locust fame whores that parades through the audition shows, the prepackaged backstories (Brooke’s a nanny! Kristy Lee likes horsies!), Simon’s continued criticism of performers as ”too Broadway” when, with a few well-known exceptions, musical theater is basically the only viable showbiz destination for most Idol alums. Those elements probably can’t be fixed. But here are some that can:

1. Tone down the product placement.

Tell Ford and Coke that if they want to buy an ad, they can buy an ad. Not redecorate the red room with bottle silhouettes, and not drag the contestants through another cruddy commercial while all lyric-botching evidence implies they should be rehearsing. American Idol is still TV’s top show; would the whole enterprise really cave in if Fox stopped treating it like a QVC infomercial?

NEXT: ”Dolly Parton rules, but did so many of this season’s greats have to be older than Dumbledore?”

2. Devise a dignified exit strategy for Paula and Randy.

It’s time. His autopilot appraisals — ”It was just all right for me,” ”You worked it out,” ”You did your thing” — constitute as slothful a dereliction of duty as her inability to…well, I suddenly forgot my thoughts about Paula, but you look beautiful tonight, and you are always…so connected to the specialness that is…what you bring to you. (Cue applause. And call 911!) Yes, their portrayals of themselves are very convincing. (They’re acting, right?) But no tears, since they both have enough money to keep themselves in bling and small dogs until the rapture. Now how about two judges who can listen to the contestants sing and offer quick, sharp critiques? No whining that it’s hard — we all do it at home every week. Oh, and ban the judges from dress rehearsals. They should form their opinions at the same time we do.

3. Pick fewer — and fresher — ”mentors.”

Dolly Parton rules, but did so many of this season’s greats have to be older than Dumbledore? When American Idol becomes about sixtysomethings coaching teenagers on how to sing ”Cracklin’ Rosie,” a rather large swath of pop-music history is being ignored. Conversely, more challenging, inventively themed hours might yield some surprises — after all, Kelly Clarkson, the Meryl Streep of Idol, broke through on Big Band Night, and Fantasia Barrino essentially won by shattering the show’s formula with ”Summertime.” Similar changeups might reward competitors who like to explore music, not just make pretty sounds. Speaking of which…

4. Raise the minimum contestant age to 18.

It’s never fun to see a stage kid’s deer-in-the-headlights look (remember Kevin ”Chicken Little” Covais?). David Archuleta has a beautiful voice, but rarely has a talented singer been less fun to watch; too young to make (and too timid to explain) his own choices, he looks like a kid quaking outside the principal’s office every time he’s judged. In a few years, he’ll be a better singer with more to say for himself; meanwhile, the High School Musical vibe around him panders to the speed-texting teen demographic at the expense of everyone else. Oh, damn it, did I just write something mean about David Archuleta? America, flag, God, freedom, the troops! I hope I won you back, because I have three points left.

5. Stop the medley madness!

If Idol is meant to create future pop stars, it’s time to rethink those elimination-night up-with-people medleys. We know you have an hour to fill, so how about filling it by revealing the actual vote totals, from top to bottom? Producers claim this would ruin the suspense (because right now, NOBODY SUSPECTS the two Davids have been getting a lot of votes); on the contrary, being able to track the progress of your favorite might energize the constituencies of some middle- or bottom-dwelling singers. In any case, those Brady Bunch Variety Hour group sing-alongs are credibility grenades tossed at the winner’s future career. Sex tapes on TMZ are less mortifying.

6. The Delta Sigma Bimbo hand-waving mosh pit must go. Forever.

7. Less talking, more singing.

Why are song performances only 90 seconds? Are you looking for someone who can actually sing, or just a pretty robot who can race to an unmotivated money-note climax in record time?

Actually, don’t answer that.

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