The Divine Miss Z is off tonight, so I'll be dusting off my Idol hat to help guide you through the big reveal of your The Top 12. I'm also going to take a crack at ranking them, in the order I think they're going to go out. But first, a few words on the season so far.

Frankly, it's been weird. On the one hand, I've been enjoying the increased level of competence, which is mostly due to the addition of The Ringers. There have been fewer completely clueless performances, and fewer contestants who have no reason to be on TV aside from their oddball personalities. On the other hand, as the recently wrapped season of Project Runway proved, mere competence can be boring. Unless talent is matched by imagination, we're stuck watching a parade of passable technicians. And as AI-haters love to point out, there's nothing special about a bunch of pageant kids over-singing cover versions of Celine Dion songs.

The reason I keep watching the show year after year–even though I've never bought an album or song by any Idol contestant–is because I'm addicted to the thrill of the unexpected moment. A few times each season, some self-taught nobody with no prior pathway into the industry steps onto the stage, sings a song that might not get a lot of airplay these days, and absolutely nails it. What the AI-averse don't get is that when all is said and done, the show rarely unearths enduring talents, and the performances on the show are hardly ever "timeless," per se. But for three minutes on the night they happen, the best Idol performances are as dramatic and moving as any scripted television show. It's like opening a present: Most of the time you get socks, but every now and then you get an out-of-print copy of your favorite childhood picture book. That's why I never say no to a present.

All of that said, it's way past time for the producers to get over their attachment to Randy, Paula and Simon as judges. After last year's string of inside jokes, meaningless catch phrases and near-incoherence, I'd hoped the judges were going to turn it around this year. And during the audition phase, they really did seem to aim for more constructive criticism. But since this latest round started, they've been back to their old bad habits: no time-management of their comments, over-reliance on the same increasingly meaningless terms ("pitchy," "cabaret," etc.), and a lot of inarticulate cross-talk that may be entertaining to them but is disrespectful both to the contestants and the home viewer. The few times that Simon starts to say something insightful, he gets cut off by Randy's blaring, "Whaaaaat?!" Yet at the same time, given his indifferent reaction to several fresh, contemporary-sounding performances this season, I'm starting to wonder if he has any notion of what's really going on in the pop market in 2008.

So those are my thoughts on the year so far. Now to tonight, and the future:

Tonight, we said goodbye to: flat, shouty, forgettable Kady; monotone, irrelevant Luke; the indistinct Asia'h (about whom my sole note this week was "wobbly with Whitney"); and big gay Danny. I'm not surprised about the latter, though I was very happy with his full-on vamp performance this week. His voice is merely solid; but given the way this show has shamefully discouraged overt gayness in the past, I was glad to see him go out "being himself" (as they say euphemistically on AI).

And now for my order-of-removal predictions:

Twelfth Place: Kristy Lee … In the battle of the bland blondes, Kristy Lee edged Kady by a hair. Good taste in music and clothes, but a voice that lacks distinction (and goes flat when she tries to project over the band). Unless she finds her inner Carrie Underwood, she's out early.

Eleventh: David H. … It's going to be hard for him to live down the gay stripper thing for long, unless he wants to go the Danny route and embrace the lifestyle (so to speak). But honestly, even I find him a little creepy, because he's got a "damaged goods" quality. If he stays true to that and doesn't try to hide it, he still won't go far, but he'll at least be more interesting. Because he's actually got a good voice.

Tenth: Ramiele … I'm not crazy about her vocals–they're fine, but formless–but she's one of the few singers in the whole competition who seems to mean what she sings, and that's got to carry her a little. But just a little.

Ninth: Amanda … Memorable for sure, but a one-trick pony, and her lack of training keeps catching up with her. (This week, she started strong and then ran out of breath belting Joan Jett.) Ultimately, she reminds me a lot of Taylor Hicks–nice for variety's sake, but nothing I couldn't see at a better-than-average urban rock club. I have a feeling there are some trainwreck performances ahead for her in the early weeks. Followed by a shocking early exit.

Eighth: Chikizie … Can Chikizie really be the only black singer left on the male side? He's hardly a world-beater–some weeks strong, some weeks warbly–though he's basically likable, and I'd hate to see him leave too soon. Sadly though, Reuben aside, this has never been a competition in which black men do well.

Seventh: Syesha … Outing herself as an actress a few weeks ago has helped me to understand who Syesha is. From Hollywood week on, she's performed every song the same way: big voice, no genuine feeling. She's playing the part of a singer; she's not showing any of herself. But she's the only black female left on the show, so that should help her stand out in the early going. Once she's gone, expect the "Idol is racist" talk to start again.

Sixth: Michael … The problem with Michael–and maybe what's kept him from becoming a star thus far–is that his voice and his stage presence are too much a hodgepodge of recognizable sources. He sings like Eddie Vedder and Jim Morrison, and he moves like Morrison and Michael Hutchence (with a little Jim Kerr thrown in this week in honor of Simple Minds). He's the poster boy for The Season Of Competence. He's unlikely to screw up royally, but unless he asserts something of himself–like picking some unusual songs–he's going to disappear from view as soon as he's TV time is up.

Fifth: David C. … Simon was way wrong when he said that David's "word nerd" confession counted against him, and David was way wrong when he got pissy about it. In the end, what makes David better than Michael–and a truer "rocker"–is that he seems far more willing to take risks, and not worry so much about his image. I mean, a rocked-up Lionel Richie cover? Really? I'm still not sure that worked, but it damn sure wasn't boring.

Fourth: Carly … I was chilly on Carly at first, but I'm starting to appreciate her polish, and her earthiness. As I wrote about American Idol last year, one of the problems with the way women are presented on this show is that the producers want them to show their bodies, but not their sexuality. Carly, meanwhile, is talking openly about drinking…and we all know that drinking leads to carousing. So yay for Carly, for presenting an image of women that's more adult. I bet she can balance a checkbook too.

Third: Jason … The way he made "Hallelujah" work with his thin, cracking voice shows that, like Brooke, he's got a sense of his limitations, and how to make the most of them. Like a lot of performers this season, he seems like he really belongs in front of a band, singing originals, not fumbling his way through cover versions on AI. But that's what makes him a contestant-to-watch: he already has a sense of who he is, and he's not like anyone who's been on the show before. Plus, what Randy might call "that whole Jack Johnson thing" (if he even knows who Jack Johnson is) definitely makes him more in tune with the times than most. In other words: he's two years out of date, not ten.

Runner-up: Brooke … She doesn't look like anyone else, or carry herself like anyone else, and she's smart enough to compensate for her small voice by keeping the arrangements of the songs she sings small. More personality than talent, but I'm always interested in what she's going to do. I think America's going to fall in love with her.

Winner: David A. … His take on Phil Collins this week went flat at times, and his response to the criticism of his song choice made him seem a little drippy and over-earnest. Still, the kid's got an effortless voice and can at least fake humility. He's like Clay Aiken, but subtler and sweeter. He's the most likely to make Paula cry, week after week. And he's got the grandma and tween vote sewn up.

Grade: ? (Can we really grade results shows with no group sings?)

Stray observations:

-How cruddy was that Blake Lewis song? Treacly lyrics, strained vocals, superfluous beatboxing…just awful. He'll be part of the sidebar stories about failed Idol albums in a matter of months, no doubt.

-Is it really fair for Paula to say to the voted-off Idols that they're going to be "big stars" when even the people who win the show don't become big stars anymore?

-The hype about the "best group of contestants ever" has been a bit much, but I do feel like the next three months are going to be a lot of fun, with a variety of different performing styles and some singers who can really bring it. I predict that the dull times are (mostly) over.