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''Idol'': No Knockouts

By RD Heldenfels Published: March 29, 2006

A couple of days ago I said I was back, but regular readers know I haven't been really, really back. Life has just kept getting in the way. I spent most of yesterday getting my younger son through the removal of his wisdom teeth, and so found myself at the office during ''Idol'' last night. Even then, I spent the first 10 minutes of ''Idol'' doing the online test for ''Jeopardy.'' 50 questions in under 10 minutes, and I don't think there's any danger of me getting an invitation to actual auditions.

It didn't feel as bad as the ''Jeopardy'' written test I took about 20 years ago -- I still feel the terror over a question asking the names of all the Supreme Court justices -- but part of that was probably because this test went so quickly. (No changing answers, no backing up for questions you skip.) Only afterward, while reviewing answers with two friends who also took the test, did I understand what I got right -- and how much I got wrong.

Anyway, after that I was working on my mailbag column with ''Idol'' on the TV. It wasn't until this morning that I finally gave the show a report card-worthy viewing. Although I skipped through most of the judges' comments, what I heard reflected what I had sensed last night -- that the messages are getting ever more loudly mixed as the judges look at who would sell CDs, and nudge this way and that -- especially on the be yourself/don't be yourself argument, which boils down to ''forget what got you here, because now you have to show us enough different things that we can force you to do almost anything in the recording studio.'' Interesting, too, the way they used the Ryan-Chris chat to take some of the heat off Chris -- to let him talk about how much he admires Live -- while never explicitly saying that the judges should have known his ''I Walk the Line'' was based on an earlier version.

Beyond that, not a great night. No goosebump-building performances, even with another overly generous theme -- ''songs of the 21st century.'' Nor did Lisa make a great show-opener (and I have to think she and Bucky remain major candidates for ouster), covering a Kelly Clarkson hit in a way that just reminds you how very good Clarkson is. C minus on my report card, and that was probably generous.

Kellie is not remotely my favorite singer on the show, but I still gave her a C plus just because she was competent at country -- or maybe the producers were able to explain to her what this song was about. She at least provided a rote synopsis before singing. C for Ace, who was not only mediocre but -- according to my bride the Ace fan -- did not look as cute as usual.

B minus for Taylor, who found a song that suited him well. B for Mandisa, good at gospel but not overpowering the way she can sometimes be. I also wonder if the show is starting to maneuver her elimination -- unflattering outfit (with camera shots from the back making that more evident) and no consistent enthusiasm from the judges. B minus also for Chris. Good, but not eye-opening.

Here endeth the fun. C for McPhee, notably for her rocky start. Somewhere between a C minus and a D for Bucky; when I heard him while working at the office, he seemed better than last week, but when I listened this morning, his fundamental dullness was more evident. C for Paris, who was robotic again. C plus for Elliott. I kept expecting him to take it up a notch higher than he did, and a show-closer is supposed to be great. Of course, so is a show opener, and we didn't get that either this week.

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