Everybody remembers Justin Guarini, the doe-eyed doofus Clarkson defeated in a vote almost as close as the typical election in Cuba: A guy who looks like a pencil with a white man's Afro and exudes all the sexual charisma of Pat Robertson is hard to forget. Believe me, I've tried -- but that five minutes' worth of When Justin Met Kelly I saw on cable was so traumatic that it's seared into my brain. Far less memorable were Nikki McKibben, the third-place finisher during Idol's inaugural campaign, and fellow also-rans Christina Christian or Jim Verraros, who dropped out of sight faster than a skydiver with a cinder block parachute. Could you pick these warblers out of a lineup? And if so, is it because one of them helped you find the Flamin' Hot Cheetos at Albertsons last weekend?
Year two of Idol was hardly an improvement. Performers like Charles Grigsby and Carmen Rasmusen deservedly fell by the wayside early -- a lot of viewers probably wish they'd fallen off a cliff -- and Corey Clark didn't make his mark until he went public with claims that he'd bedded straight-up enabler Paula Abdul. (Apparently, Clark has a taste for crazy.) No wonder the final victory felt so Pyrrhic. In one corner stood Clay Aiken, whose voice bore (and I do mean bore) a frightening resemblance to the moans of a constipated moose. Chief opponent Ruben Studdard, though an improvement over Aiken, displayed an inexplicable taste for the music of the Carpenters. The loser? All of us.
That's not to say the show lacks interest. There was surprising drama in watching eventual third-edition champ Fantasia Barrino fight it out against the likes of Diana DeGarmo and Jasmine Trias, a pair so "pitchy," in judge Randy Jackson's phrase, that they were literal no-hitters. Had either of them won, after all, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch's media empire might have crumbled on the spot. Instead, the show went on, culminating the fourth time around with a match-up between Carrie Underwood, a country singer as robotic as any of the figures in Disneyland's Hall of Presidents, and Bo Bice, who came across like a reject from a Molly Hatchet cover band. When Denver takes its turn as a fifth-season audition site on September 11 (a date with an ominous ring), contestants here will have a tough time sucking this hard. Good luck, everyone!
As for those (like me) who thought Clarkson was lame when she first grabbed the Idol title, I have an important message to deliver: Sorry, Kelly. We were wrong about you -- but only because we had no idea how bad things would get.