For the first time this season, an elimination episode of American Idol packed some real surprises. Even if the levels of tension didn’t induce nail-biting (it was more like the level of "at least kept you from waving your hand in a 'come on, move it along, I've got things to do' motion"), for once Seacrest wasn’t teasing when, at the beginning of the show, he promised an upset. After alleviating the bottom-three fears of all three remaining ladies (Crystal, Katie, and Siobhan), Ryan separated the boys into two separate groups: One consisted of Lee DeWyze, Casey James, and Tim Urban, and the other of Michael Lynche, Aaron Kelly, and Andrew Garcia. In spite of his shortcomings, Tim was obviously the red herring, as there was no way both Casey (this week’s champ) and Lee (last week’s budding star) had made the bottom three.
So it was with no great shock that Ryan announced the bottom three of Aaron, Andrew, and Michael. Things started to look a bit suspect, however, when Aaron was the first one to be sent back to safety — he didn’t exactly kill with “The Long and Winding Road.” When that happened, Mike looked genuinely concerned while Andrew’s eyes glazed over and his face went blank, almost as if he were trying to find the hidden sailboat in some off-camera magic-eye picture.
At this point, you thought you knew what Seacrest was up to — we'd get a bit of that “two fathers trying to make a better life for their family” heartstring-tugging stuff, and then the affable, likable, and oft-impressive Big Mike would return to safety while the mostly erratic Andrew would be sent home with memories of a couple good performances to keep him warm.
So when Ryan put his arm on Andrew’s shoulder and said he was safe, it came as a genuine shock. While the weirdness and laboriousness of Mike’s “Eleanor Rigby” undoubtedly alienated some viewers, Mike has been delivering heartfelt performances throughout this season, whereas Andrew has about two great nights to his name. Not to mention the indignity of Mike facing the guillotine ahead of Tim, Aaron, or Katie.
For his make-or-break song, Mike wisely opted to perform his cover of Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush's “This Woman’s Work,” which showed off his deep soul and aching falsettos without any of the bombast. His wife cried as he sang about their newborn baby for his survival, and the camera made sure not to miss a single new tear. Thank goodness for high-def, where no weeping will be invisible to the home viewer.
There was a spell where it seemed he might be at the end of his bid for Idol supremacy — at first it looked as if Kara, Randy, and Ellen were begging an obstinate Simon — but that drama was mostly for show; it was like a game of charades where they had to pantomime the word "debate." Simon strung Mike along for two seconds and then assured him he had earned their unanimous save. (Watch it below.)
Overall, keeping Mike around makes sense; the judges can’t use their save once the show is down to the top five, so they only have three weeks left to make use of it. And if all goes sensibly, we’ll be saying good-bye to Aaron, Katie, Andrew, and Tim over the next three weeks. But they are rolling the dice a bit: Saving Mike means two performers have to go home next week, and it's not inconceivable that a usually great singer might have an off night (as Mike did) or voters might assume someone is safe and not vote for them, and talented favorites like Lee, Casey, or Siobhan could end up unceremoniously dumped.
Hopefully, Idol voters will let survival-of-the-fittest crush the dreams of some cute teenagers with fine but uninspiring voices, and we can end up with a top five (Crystal, Siobhan, Lee, Casey, and Mike) that could redeem this much-maligned season.
As for last night’s musical numbers, here’s the breakdown:
Jason Derulo — whose “Whatcha Say” hit No. 1 last year — performed his new single “In My Head,” a propulsive rock number projected through a smooth R&B lens. He may not have the dance moves down yet, but his vocals were organic, comfortable, and convincing even in concert. Plus, he writes his own massive hit songs. Kara, who signed Derulo, beamed like a proud parent while a genuinely impressed Simon applauded Derulo and Kara for putting a non-sinister smile on his face for once.
The opening medley of Beatles songs was probably the best group performance of this season (meaning it wasn't entirely lame). Now that we’re down to nine people, each hopeful was able to sing (or at least prerecord) a distinct line and get some solo camera time, and it was nice they threw in a left-field choice with "Fool on the Hill," even though the almost-kick line to "All You Need Is Love" was about as forced as forced gets.
David Archuleta — season seven’s runner-up — stopped by to show Aaron Kelly what a baby-faced teen with a serviceable voice can really do in this world. His heartfelt “Imagine” (he omitted the "no religion too" line, same as two years ago) was far superior to most of Tuesday night’s covers. Even though he has finally wrapped up that whole puberty thing, his body language was still that of a 14-year-old boy. Referring to the judges making him nervous even now, he squeaked a cute little “woo!” then rolled his eyes, flashed a bunny rabbit smile, and hopped offstage.
Rihanna didn’t fare so well with her performance of her new single, “Rockstar 101.” The tune is a fun hair-metal throwback on her record but was a dud onstage. Dressed in her postapocalyptic B-movie finest, she haphazardly moaned the chorus in the general direction of her mike, and the backup singers did her no favors (though it is possible the sound mix was to blame). Also, it seemed like she finalized the dance routine about twenty minutes before showtime; it was lazier than Ke$ha’s stage show, which is impressive since Ke$ha specializes in drunken sloppiness.
Next week: Adam Lambert returns to mentor the remaining nine singers! Judging by her open-mouthed gaping when Seacrest announced that fact, it looks like Katie Stevens is hyped — but maybe that's because she's seen Lambert's phone bill and knows he voted for her.
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak worries that "Michael Lynche isn't nearly as likable as Idol wants him to be, and what's more, he doesn't have a guppy's chance in a piranha's tank of taking home the season 9 crown."
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey decided "Mike is a very good singer but I can live without him on this show and I think the judges should have waited a week or two."
Television Without Pity's Jacob chalks up Mike's save "to the almighty uterus, and I hope he continues to be amazing, because I do like him, but this is guaranteed to scare him back into his box."