TV Recap

Front-Running Scared

On ''American Idol,'' early favorites Taylor and Ace fade in their second men's semifinal performance, and Chris and Elliott take the lead

American Idol | ''EASY'' DOESN'T DO IT Taylor Hicks isn't aging well
''EASY'' DOESN'T DO IT Taylor Hicks isn't aging well

''American Idol'': Front-runners become also-rans

One of the peculiar things about American Idol is how quickly all of us fans (myself most definitely included) can jump to conclusions about contestants. Last week, for example, a lot of folks were declaring that Taylor Hicks and Ace Young were certain to survive till the closing weeks of the competition. But based on what? A few audition snippets hand-selected by the show's producers and a single live performance.

To understand the folly of that kind of thinking, all any of us had to do was watch this week's second round of the men's semifinals. After blistering performances tonight by Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin, all I can say is ''Taylor who? Ace what?''

Now, now, before all you fans of the gray-haired dude skip right to the message boards to give me what-for, I'll admit Taylor's ''Easy'' wasn't terrible, but let's be honest: Not only did his performance lack the showstopping originality we've come to expect from the competition's quirkiest competitor, but it was punctuated by a startling number of botched notes. Add to it the dude's penchant for unabashed gimmickry — the mid-number whooping, the tendency to embrace himself like he's Ray frickin' Charles every time he takes the stage — and it's clear that Taylor could just as easily finish 11th as take home the Idol crown.

The same could be said for Ace, who sounded less like a trump card and more like the joker when he attempted the falsetto portions of Daniel Bedingfield's ''If You're Not the One.'' Simon was completely right that this season's bedroom-eyed hunk is going to be disappointed when he catches his effort on replay; as for Randy and Paula, what exactly do they mean that Ace is a better singer than he's letting on? Oooh, good theory, guys! He's actually the second coming of Justin Timberlake, but he'd prefer America think of him as a future member of a Color Me Badd cover band.

Still, the Idol producers would've had to show video of Taylor and Ace pimp-slapping their grandmas to put them at risk of elimination on Thursday night. And frankly, I'm not sure even that would be enough, given the fact that David Radford's rendition of ''The Way You Look Tonight'' was the musical equivalent of having a Q-Tip jammed deep into one's ear canal. Oh, David, wasn't it enough that you took a beloved selection from the American songbook and performed it with a vibrato that most folks can only achieve by sitting atop their washing machines on spin cycle? And then, to go and invoke the spirit of Constantine Maroulis with your stanky come-hither glances? For that, you are sentenced to a lifetime of cut-rate cruise-ship performances. And take Randy with you, seeing as he tarnished Frank Sinatra's name by invoking it in his too-kind critique of your debacle.

If David somehow manages to score votes from tone-deaf Idol addicts or the masochistic set, that could be trouble for Bucky Covington and Will Makar, neither of whom has displayed enough personality in interview footage to make up for their utterly mundane showings tonight. Even though I thought Jose ''Sway'' Penala's ''Overjoyed'' was the night's second weakest vocal, I have a weird feeling he's got enough of a fan base to get a free pass for it.

Still, if ''Sway'' wants to take his silly little nickname into the finals, he's going to have to get past Kevin Covais and Gedeon McKinney. The former's Chicken Little resemblance (which we pointed out in this very column last week — you're welcome, Ryan) and not awful vocals is a combination that's almost certain to have speed-dialers reaching for their phones, even though Simon is correct in pointing out that most folks would change the station if Kevin came on the radio. The same can't be said for Gedeon's ''A Change Is Gonna Come'' — or at least not the last two-thirds of the number, during which the increasingly stylish teenager conjured up the kind of soulfulness and vocal control that's a rarity on the Idol stage.

As good as Gedeon sounded, though, he's still not quite in the same league as Elliott Yamin (who, as Paula sagely observed, deserves credit for picking the evening's most challenging song) or Chris Daughtry (who, as Simon correctly noted, set the standard for the night). I don't know why I was surprised by the richness and sophistication of Elliott's ''Moody's Mood for Love,'' but maybe it was his newfound confidence and smart brown sweater vest that had me doing a double take. Despite all the talk of Kevin and Ace as budding sex symbols, methinks the smooth cat with the crooked smile (and the way adorable mom) could be fueling a daydream or two himself.

Similarly, I could make a note of Chris' movie-star looks, or the way his olive polo shirt (astutely tucked up front) provided the episode's fashion high point. But that would be moving the focus away from his flawless interpretation of Fuel's ''Hemorrhage,'' an effort that was refreshingly raw and yet at the same time remarkably polished. Riddle me this: Is there a single Idol viewer who'd have objected if the show's producers had eliminated David, Sway, Will, and Bucky in a single swoop and allowed Chris to rock out with a five-song mini-concert? In my mind, that's the kind of chops, not to mention charisma, that deserves a place in the final two — if Chris can keep it up. After all, I have to keep reminding myself, it's only March 1, and with nearly three months of Idol in front of us, it's way too early to jump to conclusions.

What do you think? Who's doing better or worse than expected? On average, are the men or the women more talented this season? And would you let either Bucky or Kellie order for you in a restaurant?

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Originally posted Mar 02, 2006