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Survival of the fittest, `Idol' style

The bonding, the singing, the tears and the sacrifice. Nothing portrays the human experience better.

March 16, 2007|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

Watching Wednesday's elimination show live in the Idoldome, one of the most instantly apparent things was the true camaraderie between the members of the extended "Idol" family.

I've been to plenty of TV tapings, and tons in which, the moment the camera stops rolling, the smiles vanish and the stars retreat to separate corners. That is not what happens here. At breaks, the judges act like they are at recess, joshing around with each other and producer Nigel Lythgoe. They joke with their many friends who have come to see the show. Even Ryan Seacrest comes off the stage and lolls on the judging table, laughing with his sparring partner Simon Cowell. More touching perhaps is the seeming affection between most of the contestants, who during breaks lean on each other, joke, whisper, wrap arms, dance and generally behave like a college spirit team out on a road trip. The bond among them is unmistakable. And then one of them must die.

It is a beautifully brutal and poignant process each week as this little family, each member plucked from obscurity and cast onto the world stage, draws closer, their shared experience taking them that much further together. But at the price that each week they must sacrifice one of their own. A fuller metaphor for the paradox of man's experience as a social but mortal creature I cannot think of.

In the studio, the extremes of the paradox seem, if anything, starker. Notable Wednesday night was the awkward division suddenly carved onto the double-tiered couch, as by the end of the first segment all but Brandon Rogers, Phil Stacey, Sanjaya Malakar and Hayley Scarnato knew they were safe. Some, in particular Chris Sligh and Stephanie Edwards, started the evening looking nervous and uncomfortable on stage, even during the breaks. After they received their week's pass, they became giddy and playful once again, gigantic smiles lighting their faces.

During the Diana Ross segments and commercial breaks, there was a heightened sense of playtime among the survivors, combined with hugs and reassurances to those who hung in the balance. To an observer from 70 feet away, Melinda seems to play a big sister role, doing a lot of hugging and reassuring. Blake Lewis and Gina Glocksen seem the most extroverted of the group -- constantly on their feet, dancing and gabbing, a bigness of personality that may work for them or against them as the competition progresses. Lakisha Jones, for her part, seemed to hold herself back from the gang -- not quite aloof but clearly not one of the kids either. (Does this augur well or poorly for her in the long run? Rumor has it that being one of the gang has not always been a priority to some "Idol" finalists.)

However, perhaps the cruelest fate of all belonged to Haley, who had to sit in her upper corner of the couch while for 15 minutes the others celebrated and, worse still, right next to her fellow torturee Sanjaya talked her ear off with a string of grinning banter that seemed to wear badly on her understandably decaying nerves. It was a telling moment when Haley learned she was safe: She burst in emotion but forgot the requisite hug to Sanjaya, and he shuffled off to the bottom three.

We see the character of a person by how they handle moments like these, and it must be said, when my day comes I hope I can stand up with the dignity and aplomb of Brandon. Never for a moment, during the breaks or otherwise, did he let a shadow of bitterness or remorse darken his smile. The audience, thrilled to be present in the Idoldome, seemed shocked to witness his execution, and the standing ovation they gave his goodbye song -- which, alas, didn't make it to the air -- was sustained.

After the cameras shut down, the contestants embraced their lost comrade in a final hug -- although for those who had survived this test there was more giddiness than tears. Then, surprising to see, the judges came to the stage and each wished Brandon well. In particular, Simon lingered and chatted with him for a respectable number of minutes. Death be not proud.

One singer may have fallen but there is still a champion waiting to rise.


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