It's a David-versus-David showdown on `Idol'

May 20, 2008 8:00:52 AM PDT
Seriously. The "American Idol" showdown between David Cook and David Archuleta was about as much of a surprise as sugarcoated criticism and seal claps from Paula Abdul.

The David-versus-David finale was practically sealed weeks ago: Besides Abdul, judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson routinely lavished praise on the telegenic hopefuls. And it was clear that "Idol" producers had a thing for the Davids, who often closed the top-rated Fox talent contest with a well-reviewed performance - and soulful stare into the camera.

Predicting the final two - easy.

Predicting which David will take home the title Wednesday night?

Um ...

Never before has an "Idol" contest seemed so evenly matched and - here's the kicker - suspenseful.

In seasons past, there were obvious front-runners: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks. But this time, it's anybody's game.

"I'm delighted with the finale," said Nigel Lythgoe, an executive producer for "American Idol." "It's one of the strongest we'll ever see. As Simon (Cowell) said, the finale will be a humdinger. I can tell you, for a fact, with the top three contestants, every one won a week. That's very rare. Usually we have an out-and-out winner from day one. I think people (viewers) have changed alliances and recognized talent as it's grown."

Archuleta, the 17-year-old singing prodigy from Murray, Utah, has been unstoppable since the beginning. The humble, giggly teen with the angelic voice - and less-than-sympathetic stage dad - easily breezed past other viewer favorites like power-belter Carly Smithson, doofy Jason Castro and hottie Michael Johns. The Arch's greatest hit: a simple version of "Imagine."

"I've never heard as exquisite and melodic a singer," Lythgoe said, adding that Archuleta will only improve as he gets older.

But Cook, 25, of Blue Springs, Mo., is tough competition. The former bartender (who does crossword puzzles in his spare time) emerged a front-runner somewhere in the middle of the season, and has shown talent for picking songs that suit his edgy emo-rock sensibility. Even tunes from the Neil Diamond repertoire (see Cook's radio-ready take on "All I Really Need Is You").

"Cook's got an enormous career ahead of him," Lythgoe said. He's also, ahem, 'easy on the eyes."'

After getting rid of what was perhaps the worst haircut in "Idol" history, the now-stylin' singer has attracted countless female fans who've been swayed by his sly grin and bright hazel eyes that hint at mischief beneath.

"Whoever wins on `Idol' will be as hugely successful" as previous contestants Underwood and Chris Daughtry, Lythgoe said.

One thing is for certain: Both Davids will win record contracts with Sony-BMG, which signs the show's winners and popular runners-up, so they'll be OK either way.

That said, it could be tough to watch Archuleta's reaction if the vote goes in Cook's favor.

Imagine all the people, voting against such a sweet, shy kid. Like kicking a puppy.