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Fantasia crowned the 'Idol'

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
Published May 27, 2004

It was the win that American Idol desperately needed.

Because Fantasia Barrino's crowning Wednesday as the third winner of Fox-TV's blockbuster reality show helped bury all the controversies that buffeted the show this season: from allegations of flawed or racist voting to complaints that the most talented contestants never got close to the top spots.

"I've been through some things, but I worked hard to get where I'm at," said Barrino, 19, a single mother from North Carolina who was widely favored to win over 16-year-old, Georgia-born belter Diana DeGarmo. Her prize: a $1-million record deal and a new car. "Thank you all so much."

According to host Ryan Seacrest, 65-million votes were cast for the pair, nearly three times the 24-million votes tabulated for finalists Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken during Idol's finale last year.

And since even the show's judges admitted Tuesday that Barrino deserved the win, past criticism about the show's problems seemed moot - much in the same way last year's win by 300-pound soul teddy bear Studdard neutralized complaints that the show focused on thin, pretty contestants.

Too bad fans had to wade through an excruciating, two-hour finale to see Barrino's teary, triumphant spin through her first single, I Believe. With just two contestants left, Idol's megafinales always prove tiresome, padding out their length with awkward moments and ill-advised musical numbers.

This year, the festivities kicked off with a 40-minute collection of behind-the-scenes interviews and red carpet celebrity exchanges twice as painful as any Oscar show preview.

Past Idol contestants such as Clay Aiken, Kimberly Caldwell and Christina Christian helped out by offering remotes reports from the finalists' hometowns and the red carpet (Justin Guarini, the least successful Idol runnerup, didn't even rate a mention).

Powerhouse performances by losers La Toya London and George Huff outside the Kodak Theater - blazing covers of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' If You Don't Know Me By Now and Billy Paul's Me and Mrs. Jones, respectively - only served to remind viewers that perhaps the show's best singers didn't land in the competition's top two spots, after all.

As usual, the finale's low point was a musical tribute to the show's guest judges that this year included all 12 finalists tackling tunes by Barry Manilow and Gloria Estefan, among others. Often a sharp reminder that Idol's finalists always include some pretty awful singers, the 2004 production also proved how much less talented this group is than those in past editions.

Even Idol judge Paula Abdul - often little more than a font of uselessly upbeat platitudes - wasn't buying host Ryan Seacrest's sunny assertion that this year's competition was the "best Idol yet."

"Let's say most interesting," she offered diplomatically, as Seacrest's 1,000-watt smile dimmed a little. "There's been a lot of good controversy."

Well-meaning critics have suggested several ways to "improve" Idol: limit the number of times callers can vote; stop forcing contestants to sing all this dated, pop treacle (Estefan and Manilow in the same year?); find judges who actually know talent and give them some power to affect the outcome.

All good suggestions that would make Idol a better talent contest. But this show isn't just a competition; it's a TV phenomenon drawing 25-million viewers an episode.

And it's far better television to offer a field of young, raw contestants that keep viewers on their seat edge every night, waiting for the missed note, forgotten lyric or crying jag.

By that yardstick, this year's Idol delivered - taking viewers on a ride that had less to do with finding the best singing talent than keeping fans off-balance and entertained.

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 01:00:38]

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