Not since chads twisted in Florida’s breeze has an electoral process raised so many questions.

For the second time this season, a talented favorite was voted off “American Idol” while a likable, less-talented performer survived.

Wednesday, it was La Toya London who got the heave-ho from the top-rated Fox show. Limited but lovely Jasmine Trias hung on for another go at the prize this week, along with Fantasia Barrino and Diana DeGarmo. Their performances air at 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday on Fox, with the results announced in a show at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

While these surprise outcomes might boost ratings in the short term, it could be mean trouble in Idol-land. From a final 12 filled with folks who didn’t deserve to be there to smarmy host Ryan Seacrest’s “Seacrest out!” tagline at the end of the show, “Idol” is ripe for change. Let’s start off with a life-saving fix that could keep actual talent in the competition:

• Give the judges a once-a-season veto.

In the same way the U.S. Supreme Court put a guy in the White House four years ago, the august panel of “Idol” judges could have saved America from the Agony of the Three Divas last month. You remember: London, Barrino and powerhouse Jennifer Hudson inexplicably in the bottom three, with Hudson voted off.

The troika of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell should have had the power to declare that goofy choice null and void – just once. Everybody could have come back the next week and gone at it again. The diva voters would have been roused, and Dean Martin-channeling John Stevens could have been sent packing earlier.

Which brings us to the next suggestion:

• Raise the age limit.

Although 16-year-old DeGarmo is among the three finalists competing Tuesday night – and no one can dispute that she’s earned her spot by improving her performances week to week – the spunky lass is just too young.

So was red-haired crooner Stevens, whose lounge lizard act might have worked if he’d had a couple of lost years of smoking and drinking under his belt. Also too young was lovely but limited 17-year-old Leah LaBelle, the first finalist voted off.

If you make the minimum age 19, you still get the mature performances of a Barrino. Then again, even at 25, former college football player Matthew Rogers didn’t have the stuff to be an “American Idol,” which means the show has to:

• Search harder.

With a population approaching 300 million, there have to be a lot better singers in the United States than the dozen who made it through this season. Rogers, LaBelle, Camile Velasco and pink-haired Amy Adams may have sounded great in the shower. But none of them ever had a shot. That’s one-third of the finalists.

Maybe the casting folks should weed out more of the funny, if un-serious, performers and work harder at finding singers worth watching week after week.

While those bad auditions are among the funniest bits on TV these days, the worst of the wannabe Idols has had more than enough face time. Which leads to the next suggestion:

• Enough with William Hung.

He was funny. Once.

Speaking of funny, the finalists aren’t. So putting them together in wacky situations where they can sing old pop songs just doesn’t work, leading to the next tip:

• Cut the cheesy videos.

These thinly veiled commercials for Ford demonstrate, week after week, that untrained dancers can’t dance, untrained actors can’t act, and amateur singers have trouble singing while they act and dance badly.

One of the joys of “American Idol” is watching a performer blossom. That never happens in one of those videos. Never.

Another way to watch performers blossom is to try them with material they’re not used to singing, although Stevens was probably doomed by “Crocodile Rock.” This year’s theme nights forced singers into styles that not only didn’t work for them but had no connection with modern pop music. “Idol” should:

• Bring theme nights into the 21st century.

Disco has died at least twice, Barry Manilow hasn’t been mainstream pop since microwave ovens were a nifty new idea, and even Elton John has trouble singing Elton John songs these days. The songs of Ashford & Simpson are as hep and happenin’ as whistling the ditties of George M. Cohan. Pop means popular.

The theme nights bring celebrity judges who go out of their way not to judge bad performances. Which leads to another suggestion:

• Ax the guest judges.

Especially movie directors who really, really, really want to be “American Idol” judges, like Quentin Tarantino. His comments added meaningless minutes to already bloated episodes, which leads to the most important suggestion.

• Trim the show.

Last Wednesday’s results show – which should have been 30 minutes long – was an incredible 64 minutes long – counting commercials (both real and embedded). With two, count “em, two, Donna Summer performances and a meeting between the four finalists and a psychic, there was nothing worth salvaging. Too much show burns out the audience. And too many shows does, too.

• Drop the “specials.”

Whether it’s another look at Hung or a preview of the week’s two real episodes, the Monday night “specials” are attempting to milk ratings out of the show and promote other Fox products, like the reprehensible “The Swan.” Programmers should have learned their lesson with ABC’s overexposure of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” It aired so much it killed the show – and almost the network.

And programmers should also learn that the overexposure of an insufferable host doesn’t help the show either, meaning:

• Out with “Seacrest out!”

It isn’t the Ryan Seacrest show, but nobody told Ryan. Goofy hosts don’t have to come back next season.

Ask Brian Dunkelman.


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