Michael Slezak
March 07, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

”American Idol”: The men disappoint again

I don’t know what’s freaking me out more right now: The possibility that I had a mildly telepathic moment with Simon Cowell tonight, or the sudden realization that I might be an even crankier crankypants than American Idol‘s notorious British judge.

As tonight’s final contestant, Chris Sligh, wrapped up his performance of D.C. Talk’s ”Wanna Be Loved,” I settled on a theme for tonight’s TV Watch: ”Two and a half men.” I was thinking that the title of Charlie Sheen’s CBS sitcom perfectly matches the number of male contestants who’ve proven worthy of entrance into Idol‘s season-6 finals. Moments later, when Ryan asked the judges to come up with the number of worthy male contestants, Simon gave a similar, albeit slightly kinder, assessment: ”Three and a half.”

The coincidence simply underscores the painfully evident fact that the men of season 6 are a resoundingly uninspired bunch. Heck, even Paula wants to cull ’em down to four!

That said, there were varying shades of awful among the five guys at risk of going home on Thursday (as well as one contestant who appears to be inexplicably safe). And while I’m not normally the kind of person who believes that reality TV is governed by a higher power (because, hopefully, God has more important concerns than, say, who’s going to win The Amazing Race: All-Stars), I’m actually considering saying a prayer before I go to bed tonight that Sanjaya Malakar will get the boot. To be fair, the kid probably hit fewer wonky notes than Brandon (and maybe even Phil), but the discomfort level of his performances is so off the charts that it borders on unbearable. With his hair — the unspoken ninth contestant on the men’s side — straightened and layered to alarming effect, Sanjaya delivered John Mayer’s ”Waiting on the World to Change” in a thin, nasal warble that would’ve been perfect for a duet of ”I Love You” with Barney the Dinosaur but had no place in a serious singing competition. Would America allow a Pomeranian to break from the Kentucky Derby starting gate? Or let a seven-year-old girl play defense in the NFL? Then Sanjaya’s run must end — stat!

If Sanjaya’s meekness (as well as his hula demonstration) was a turnoff, though, so too was Sundance Head’s hubris in choosing ”Jeremy.” Sure, the judges praised his ”Mustang Sally” cover last week, but that’s only because the whole performance was nothing more than an excuse to ”Shout, Sundance, shout!” The winding, complex Pearl Jam melody represented a whole different degree of difficulty, and Sundance wouldn’t have been able to hit most of the notes if he’d been wielding an oversize tennis racket. I’m not exactly sure how Randy could’ve dubbed the performance as ”kinda hot,” when it was actually wildly off-key. But then again, I left my Dawg-to-English dictionary at the office.

The judges’ mild pimping on Sundance’s behalf is bad news for Brandon Rogers, whose choice of Rare Earth’s ”I Just Want to Celebrate” will probably result in his delivering the rather fitting line ”I put my trust in the people, but the people let me down” during what I’m guessing will be his Thursday-night exit performance. By this point, Brandon has made it abundantly clear why he’s a backup singer: Every time he reaches for a big note, I’m reminded of ABC Sports’ ”agony of defeat” ski jumper. There’s that momentary ”Wow! He’s gonna go there!” exhilaration, followed by the musical equivalent of a violent, ugly body slam into a snowy mountainside.

Of course, if Brandon scores sympathy votes because Simon mistakenly called him ”Travis” during the post-performance critique, then it could lead to the unfair, but not exactly upsetting, elimination of Jared Cotter or Phil Stacey. Paula (extremely lucid tonight) was completely on point in her criticism that sharp-dressed Jared needs to do more than simply sing on key, but I thought he deserved a little more credit for doing so, considering that proved to be an elusive task for most of his competitors. Then again, with his barely competent cover of ”If You Really Love Me,” Jared broke the unwritten rule that Idol contestants should stop singing Stevie Wonder, at the same time proving his limited star potential — barring any future plans for a direct-to-DVD sequel to Zoolander, that is.

Phil, meanwhile, ranked No. 3 on my list of the night’s best performances, despite brutalizing the opening bars of LeAnn Rimes’ ”I Need You.” Maybe it was his nifty trilby that, um, capped his position, or maybe it was the way he recovered his mojo when he reached full-tilt belting. Still, if there’s a Las Vegas pool where I can bet on the contestant most likely to finish in 12th place this season, would someone give me a heads-up?

Unfortunately for Phil, I don’t see any scenario in which he’ll outlast the one contestant to whom I’ve developed a powerful allergy: whiny soul man Chris Richardson. Why doesn’t the Justin Timberlake wannabe take up track-and-field, considering he hasn’t said no to a single vocal run all season? But it’s not just the fact that Chris R. seems incapable of sticking with a melody, or that he managed to turn ”fall” and ”eyes” into eight-syllable words; it’s also that his paper-thin voice was consistently off-key on Keith Urban’s ”Tonight I Wanna Cry.” I actually felt a twinge of envy as Chris delivered the line ”I’ve got the TV on, sound turned down”; would that I could’ve been so lucky! Tell me I’m not the only person in America who’s not getting him.

Actually, if I’m being honest, I didn’t completely get anything tonight, not even Chris Sligh’s and Blake Lewis’ routines — which isn’t to say the two men’s front-runners didn’t maintain, or perhaps even widen, their massive lead among the guys. Paula was right (again!) that Chris S.’s performance of D.C. Talk’s ”Wanna Be Loved” was not his best effort, but in his defense, at least the mop-topped singer doesn’t pander for votes. You’ve got to respect his insistence on choosing an eccentric path that strays far from the intersection of (Whitney) Houston Street and (Phil) Collins Boulevard, even if his voice hasn’t exactly transitioned from ”really good” to ”incredible.”

Similarly, Blake’s choice of 311’s ”All Mixed Up” left Paula, Simon, and Randy slightly befuddled, although the track’s reggae rhythms were especially well suited to the spiky-haired contestant’s slickly contemporary style. The real problem for Blake (and it’s the same thing that plagued him during last week’s Jamiroquai cover) was the way he got winded and subsequently a wee bit (dare I say it?) pitchy, over the duration of his performance. For now, Blake’s managing to cover his flaws with intermittent bouts of beatboxing, but when he’s sharing the stage next week with ladies like Melinda, LaKisha, and Stephanie, the emperor had better make sure he’s fully clothed.

What do you think? Were you as disappointed as I was by the men’s performances this week? Which two guys are you expecting to get the boot after tonight? Are you holding out any hope that Thursday’s big announcement will involve the wild-card return of one or more early eliminees, such as Tami Gosnell, Sean Michel, and Jenry Bejarano? And are you getting exhausted by Ryan’s incessant attempts to bait Simon into an ”I’m not gay, you are!” dialogue? Weigh in on our message board below, and be sure to check out the latest edition of EW.com’s new webcast, Idolatry.

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