AMERICAN IDOL. 8 tonight and 8 p.m. tomorrow, Channel 29.

HERE'S HOW I'm hoping Season 9 of Fox's "American Idol" will end:

With the realization that nothing that's happened on the show over the past several seasons - the keying in of a particular set of numbers over and over, the appearance of the smoke monster that threatened to engulf Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert, the bitter rivalry between the blond man and the Judge in Black - really mattered.

Crystal Bowersox or Lee DeWyze will, after the final buttons get pressed tonight, win the right to record a forgettable song (or at least one they'll soon want to forget) and the rest of us will go back to arguing about just when it was that watching "Idol" went from guilty pleasure to easily skipped chore.

Guess what? Turns out some of us have been free to leave the island all along.

Watching ABC's "Lost" on Sunday, I kept thinking of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance - as I watched Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) learning to let go.

The stages probably apply more neatly to "American Idol," which some of us have been trying to "fix" for almost as long as it's been on. Seemingly stuck on bargaining, we've demanded: Smarter judges. Coherent judges. Fewer judges. A less manipulative host. Shows that end when the TV schedule says they're going to end. Better contestants. A more representative voting system. Audition shows that rely more on talent and less on freak acts. More Simon. Less Simon. Axing Paula. Bringing back Paula. Stifling Kara. (Still a good idea.) Less-lame theme nights. Older contestants. Younger contestants. Mentors who actually mentor.

Really - what hasn't been suggested and occasionally even tried?

Yet here we are, Season 9, and not for the first time we're faced with a couple of acceptable young singers who are no more likely to become major, long-lasting recording artists, much less idols, than any of the legions of Justin Bieber wannabes currently on YouTube.

No matter how often we're reminded that this is a singing competition and that the desired outcome is the discovery of a singer who's likely to more than earn back the cost of the winner's recording contract, we all know by now that the show itself is about the journey.

And, OK, lately about teaching the judges a lesson by refusing to pick whomever it is they seem to be favoring (a lesson that Simon Cowell seems to be learning only now, in his final season on the show, as he looks for reasons to praise Lee and thus avoid hurting Crystal).

By journey standards, Lee would seem the clear favorite, Crystal having been cheerfully unwilling to change a thing about herself to fit some imagined "Idol" mold.

I might have preferred a finale that included Siobhan Magnus, but even she wouldn't have made the parts of the show devoted to the judges, the Ford videos and the inane chatter of Ryan Seacrest any more bearable.

Next season, Fox execs tell us, the Tuesday shows will be 90 minutes, the Wednesday results only a half-hour. They don't yet know who'll be replacing Simon, who's looked as if he were halfway out the door most of the season, but they're no doubt looking for someone who can help reverse, or at least stem, the loss of viewers.

I'm not saying it couldn't happen, or that I can't imagine being around for Season 10.

But I can hear the plane's engines. If we jump - now - we just might make it. *

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