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An Idol eyeful

A surprising showdown caps the tantalizing 10th season, which has found a refreshing vibe without Simon Cowell.

Finalists Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina will duel it in the season finale of "American Idol." (Photos / Michael Becker, Fox)
Finalists Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina will duel it in the season finale of "American Idol." (Photos / Michael Becker, Fox)Read more

Scotty McCreery vs. Lauren Alaina.

All those of you who foresaw this tandem of Dixie-fried adolescents facing off in the American Idol finals, raise your hands.

Well, if you ain't the grandpappy of all liars!

Tuesday night's unexpected showdown, with the winner to be announced Wednesday night, is a fitting end to Idol's surprise-stuffed 10th season.

Going into this year, the primary question was: Could Idol survive without its presiding personality, Simon Cowell?

The show's canny strategy of ramping up the star power has been an unqualified success. Rock legend Steven Tyler and pop Cleopatra Jennifer Lopez brought a refreshing new perspective and vibe to the karaoke carnivale.

Imagine using music professionals with considerable stage experience to judge TV's biggest singing competition. Crazy, right?

Following Idol's new distribution deal with Interscope Records, that label's chairman, Jimmy Iovine, inserted himself into the weekly process far more than his predecessor, Clive Davis, ever did.

Iovine, in turn, brought in experienced producers such as Don Was, Rodney Jerkins, and the Rock Mafia team to work on the contestants' arrangements, and arena-stature singers such as Sheryl Crow and Lady Gaga to advise them on delivery.

All season long, the production values were splashier. James Durbin declares himself a professional wrestling fan? Let's surprise him with a chest-beating appearance by Hulk Hogan.

Lauren elects to sing a Miley Cyrus tune? Who should drop by the studio but Miss Hannah Montana herself.

On stage, there were string sections and gospel choirs. Third-place finisher Haley Reinhart even got a wind machine for her tribute to Stevie Nicks.

Rolling like a rock star, baby.

Covering artists from Reba McEntire to Judas Priest, the song choices were more eclectic and flattering than ever before. In large part, that's because Idol cut back on the theme-night hurdles. (Well, except for that Carole King jubilee.)

Viewers responded. Gradually. The season started poorly; viewership was down 23 percent from the previous year. There were weeks when Dancing With the Stars stole Idol's ratings crown.

The numbers have improved. According to Nielsen data, total viewership is up slightly from last year at the same juncture. It's the first time that Idol's audience has grown season to season since 2007.

This week's shows should widen the margin of improvement. Simply put, the talent this season is better. Last year's bland Top Two - Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox - led to depressed numbers for the finals.

This batch of vocalists (11 of whom will tour together, beginning in July) may be stronger, but they're certainly not as good as the judges seem to think they are.

The problem is that Steven, Jennifer, and Randy Jackson have fallen verse-over-chorus in love with their choices.

It's the most inappropriate Idol infatuation since Paula Abdul was accused of getting too close to contestant Corey Clark in the second season.

There has been precious little criticism, constructive or otherwise, this year. The panel has greeted every performance with strings of superlatives.

After Lauren's rendition of "I Hope You Dance" last Tuesday, Lopez ran her hand over her arm and said, "You cannot buy those. Those are not for sale. Those only come out when somebody makes them come out. You gave me just goosies from head to toe."

The air of unconditional adulation has made this season's Idol resemble a preschool finger-paint show being judged by the class mothers. Everybody's a genius!

Perhaps it was the nonjudgmental tone of the judges that made the results seem so random. Week after week, audience favorites such as Pia Toscano, Casey Abrams, and Jacob Lusk were prematurely eliminated.

Wait a minute; didn't Randy just say he could already hear the first three cuts on their Greatest Hits CD?

The unpredictable shakedown has left us with the youngest and most Nashvillean final pairing in the history of the show: McCreery, 17, and Alaina, 16. Average age: Can't drive.

With his oak-barrel-cured voice, McCreery looks to be the prohibitive favorite. Alaina has never managed to harness her prodigious ability, but it would be a mistake to count her out.

It's been that kind of season on Idol.