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Not much to pick from in 'American Idol's' four finalists

David Hiltbrand
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

There is some debate about whether this has been the strangest season of "American Idol" to date. But there's no question it has seemed like the longest.

From the opening audition circus in Philadelphia to last week's precognition display by Paula Abdul, TV's giant karaoke contest has been a marathon instead of a sprint. (Of course, time drags when you have back-to-back-to-back theme weeks of Dolly Parton, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Neil Diamond. Almost makes you long for the return of Peter Noone.)

But the end is in sight. At long last we are down to the Final Four: David Cook, David Archuleta, Jason Castro and Syesha Mercado.

Whoa, that's our final four? This really has been a weird year. There were better, more charismatic singers who didn't even make the Top 12. Remember Danny Noriega, Kady Malloy and Asia'h Epperson?

It's too late for regrets. Let's dance with the ones we voted for, shall we? (Or at least the ones Fox has told us we voted for.) Here's a look at the contenders in alphabetical order.

David Archuleta. The judges keep urging the 17-year-old from Utah to loosen up and have fun, but that isn't likely to happen. He even made "Sweet Caroline" sound like a dirge. Little David always seems one harsh comment away from tears.

What he does have is that lustrous, soaring voice. Talent-wise, he's tops. But he hasn't done a very good job of choosing material and to his detriment, every performance sounds alike.

Those considerations aren't as important as the squeals and screams that greet him every time he takes the stage. Never forget that "American Idol" is a popularity, not a talent contest. And Archumania could well carry him to the top.

His fate will tell us a lot about the current state of "Idol." The teenager's primary appeal is to younger females who cherish his Smurfy squeezability. But audience studies suggest that girls have been jumping off the "Idol" bandwagon this season in droves. If Archuleta doesn't win, it's a sure sign that "Idol" is graying rapidly.

Another reason to vote for him: it's obligatory for "Idol" winners to record a Christmas album. And he would make by far the best caroler.

Jason Castro. Living proof that cornflower blue eyes, suburban dreadlocks and a crooked smile can take you a long way in this world.

Because certainly, the 20-year-old Texan hasn't gotten this far on merit. He's had precisely one memorable vocal outing all season long: an emotional cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a la the late Jeff Buckley.

Yet many online polls have Castro as the frontrunner. (Refer back to observation about popularity vs. talent.) And to be fair, his mediocre showing isn't entirely his fault. No one in the contest has been more hamstrung by the show's idiotic and unbecoming string of theme weeks. Castro has about as much facility for show tunes as he apparently would for multivariable calculus.

He is certainly the first person to make it this far in the "Idol" elimination process without seeming to care one iota about the outcome. If he has a competitive bone in his body, it hasn't emerged yet. Week in and week out, whether the judges are praising him or flaying him, he responds with the same twinkle in his eyes and "aw, shucks" grin.

"It's all good" - his totally laid-back stoner manner appears to say. And so far, it has been.

David Cook. The senior member of our foursome is following the proven path to "Idol" coronation: He's shown marked improvement and growth through the course of the competition, and "Idol" voters usually reward that dedication.

He may be the unlikeliest contender, with his glum air and his cabbage-patch hairdo. (Cook seems to have patterned his look on that Visa commercial where the guy messes himself up before getting on line outside a punk club. "Looking like you just rolled out of bed - priceless.")

No one has benefited more from the "Idol" rule change that allowed contestants to accompany themselves on instruments this year. From the time he strapped on a guitar to rock out on the Turtles' "Happy Together," Cook has been winning fans. The real turning point was his radical emo cover of Lionel Richie's "Hello."

Imagine that: a truly original musical moment on "American Idol"!

But Cook also proved surprisingly adaptable this past month as "Idol" put the singers over the bad-music hurdles.

Yeah, Cook is looking more and more like your next "American Idol." That's what Paula said last week. And, as we now know, she can see into the future.

Syesha Mercado. What the ... ? How did she make it so far? Suffice it to say, if a longshot this prohibitive had done this well at the Kentucky Derby, there would be a stewards' inquiry.

Nothing against the 21-year-old Floridian. She's attractive, with a decent voice and abundant energy. But she's notably lacking that little ingredient known as star-power.

Show of hands: How many of you would rush out to buy a Syesha CD? Thought so.

Maybe it's an "Idol" conspiracy. No one else in the competition fared as well with the off-off-Broadway tilt of the last few weeks. Only Mercado had the type of stagey bravado needed to carry this dreck. Hmmm.

However you slice it, Mercado has managed to hang in there, despite the fact that she has consistently been among the bottom-dwellers each week.

If she survives Wednesday night, it will be a miracle. Of course, we've been saying that for two months. Hey, maybe she is bullet-proof.

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