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'American Idol' and the Theory of '3': Is Every Third Season a Dud?

THR digs into the oft-whispered notion that years three, six and nine are among the Fox show's weaker offerings. Will season 12 suffer a similar fate?

Jordin Sparks Lee DeWyze Crystal Bowersox split L
Fox

There’s an oft-whispered theory among American Idol insiders: the notion that every third season of the show is inevitably a weaker one.

Before we dive deeper into the coincidence-turned-conspiracy, let us first say that seasons three, six and nine featured many finalists that we absolutely adore, but there’s no denying (and some of those very contestants would even admit this) that in the annals of Idol history, they don’t quite compare to the year of, say, Adam Lambert or season seven’s battle of the Davids (David Cook vs. David Archuleta).

So why is this triple play more often a stumble? Season three and season nine seem to have suffered from a certain sameness -- the former’s battle of the divas, first featuring Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia and LaToya London then coming down to four girls including Diana DeGarmo and Jasmine Trias, didn’t have enough variety, and you could make a similar argument for season nine, when finalists Lee DeWyze, Crystal Bowersox and Casey James all wore their acoustic guitars as a badge of honor.

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Season six is more of an anomaly. Featuring beat-boxing wunderkind Blake Lewis, soulful former backup singer Melinda Doolittle and radio-ready eventual winner Jordin Sparks (not to mention blue-eyed R&B man Chris Richardson and soul-rocker Brandon Rogers), it had the opposite scenario with plenty of diversity -- but it also had Sanjaya in the Top 10, which by the end of the year 2007, had driven tune in but also inflicted some damage on the Idol brand.

Other than season nine, when the four-judge panel included the inexplicable addition of Ellen DeGeneres, a tuned-out Simon Cowell and a marginalized Kara DioGuardi, an Idol season sinks or swims as a result of its contestant pool, so you can’t really blame the table at the front. On the other hand, they’re the last word in the audition process and if too many of the same singers are going through, ultimately, that’s on them. Then again, they deserve credit for discovering diamonds in the rough like season three’s Fantasia and every other unexpected winner -- and there certainly have been plenty.

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Also working against the “three” seasons? Perceived highs from the season before. In season three’s case, it was the final this-close vote tally between season two’s Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. In season six’s case, it was the ratings smash that was season five, when Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee battled for the top spot. And in season nine’s case, it followed Lambert. ‘Nuff said.

Will season 12 suffer the same fate? In a year or two, will we be saying, “Angie who?” Will anyone remember how five forgettable guys fared on a season dominated by girls? And poor Aubrey Cleland … (If you’re asking yourself, “Who’s that?” click here.) Exactly.

Where do you stand on the much debated dud theory? Does it hold any weight? Chime in below …

Twitter: @Idol_Worship