Has ‘American Idol’ lost its pizazz?

By Lynn Elber

The contestants lack personality, critics say.

LOS ANGELES — This season of “American Idol” had talented singers, a doe-eyed teenage contestant for the prepubescent crowd, visits from pop royalty, stinging comments from Simon Cowell and jaw-droppers from Paula Abdul.

So why have some fans and observers found it a dull slog as the show builds to its David Archuleta vs. David Cook finale next Wednesday?

Because contestants who were good but not memorable made for mediocre television, watchers say. Where was the drama, the unpredictability, the oddball personalities? In short, where was the fun?

Such criticism is ironic given the heat “Idol” took last year when Sanjaya Malakar, more a hairstyle than a singer, held the spotlight. Or the reaction when dancin’ man Taylor Hicks won the title in 2006, trading as much on charm as skill.

Producers of the Fox show made an effort this year to go for vocal gold over glitz, and this is the thanks they get — along with remaining the No. 1 show, albeit with slimmer ratings.

“The only thing that kept the entire thing from being excruciatingly boring was [apparent frontrunner] Michael Johns being voted off and the shiver it seemed to send through everyone,” observed regular “Idol” viewer Mike Anderson of Yakima, Wash.

“Because the talent level was so high, nothing anyone did was surprising,” Anderson said.

Maybe not quite high enough: No one, not even teen fave Archuleta or Cook, came close to equaling what Anderson calls LaKisha Jones’ “blowout performance” of “And I’m Telling You” last season. Fantasia Barrino’s stunning rendition of “Summertime” in season three also remains a singular achievement.

Dave Della Terza has long relished mocking “American Idol” on his Web site, votefortheworst.com, but counts himself among this season’s disappointed viewers.

“In past years people would ask, ‘Do you hate “American Idol”?’ I’d say it’s fun to make fun of, it’s so bad,” he said. “But this year, honestly, I’m so sick of the show. ... It’s almost a chore to watch at this point.”

He’s hearing the same thing from visitors to his site and seeing it in the numbers, with traffic down about 50 percent.

A major complaint cited by Della Terza: The contestants have remained ciphers. In other words, Jason Castro’s dreadlocks showed more character than any contestant.

“What do you really know about David Cook? All you really know about David Archuleta is his dad is annoying,” Della Terza said, referring to reports of backstage meddling.

“I think that’s why Sanjaya was so successful. Every week, he was coming out and showing personality. He flourished in a crowd of people who didn’t have personalities,” Della Terza said.

“American Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe isn’t buying the criticism. He says the talent this year has been “phenomenal” and he expects the David vs. David finale will be the “humdinger” that judge Cowell colorfully predicted last week.

The audience for “American Idol” has dropped by about 8 percent from the nearly 31 million viewers who watched last year. But there’s been a general erosion in TV viewership, partly blamed on the writer’s strike, with the big four networks drawing about 9 percent fewer viewers in April and May so far than during the same period last year. “Idol” has withstood the downturn better than many other hit series, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” down about 20 percent.

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