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American Idol season premiere recap: Touchy-Philly

Even Simon seems a little moved during the Philadelphia auditions, which hit the right balance of triumph (welcome, Kristy Lee Cook and Angela Martin!) and train wreck (bye-bye, stalker guy!)

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Idol Episode 1

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

Late Tuesday afternoon, about two hours before the season premiere of American Idol, I put on my workout gear and running shoes and dragged myself to the gym. I know this sounds like odd preparation for the sedentary task of watching TV (and then sitting in front of a computer and writing about watching TV), but the Idol season can be long and unforgiving, and when there’s a chance the soundtrack to your day job might include Haley Scarnato warbling ”Turn the Beat Around,” physical stamina is a must.

So anyhow, as I plugged away on the treadmill, trying to ignore my exhaustion by focusing on my special (and by special, I mean Fantasia-heavy) ”Idol workout mix,” something occurred to me: The start of the Idol season is a lot like recommitting oneself to fitness excellence after seven months of sloth.

There’s at least a little bit of dread: ”Wait, Idol‘s back already? What if this season is a bust? What if there’s nobody in the finals I want to root for? What if Simon makes fun of a mentally challenged kid at the auditions again?” There’s most certainly pain: Milo Turk’s ”No Sex Allowed” was a triple assault on my ears, my eyes, and any love I may have ever felt for novelty songs. There might be a few tears: Oh, Temptress Browne, I’d have joined that group hug in a skinny minute! (More on that in a moment.) But by the time you’re finished with the workout (or, yes, the season premiere), you realize something: ”Hey, I’m suddenly chock-full of endorphins. I feel amazing. I’m going to go back tomorrow, and at least twice a week from now until the end of May!”

Okay, maybe I’m a little crazy. But maybe I’m also a little psychic. Because — bam! — doesn’t Idol go and kick off its seventh season by showcasing 19-year-old Joey Catalano, who lost 204 pounds before showing up for his successful (if not particularly memorable) rendition of Maroon 5’s ”Sunday Morning”? As the guy admitted to the camera that ”something in me is on fire,” I was thinking pretty much the same thing. (Except for me, the burning sensation was in my hamstring.)

What’s more, Idol itself seemed leaner and meaner as it spent two hours highlighting the best and worst Philadelphia had to offer. For starters, the show’s producers seem to finally have taken note of what I (and scads of you message-board posters) have been calling for over the past several seasons: a more balanced talent-to-train-wreck ratio in the audition rounds. According to Seacrest, the City of Brotherly Love produced 29 golden tickets, and we got to see 10 of those auditions.

The best of the bunch was undoubtedly Kristy Lee Cook. I’ll admit, after the lovely, blond Oregonian spent her interview package professing her love of horses and hiking and cage fighting, I was bracing myself for a saccharine Carrie Underwood imitator, but boy, was I wrong. Kristy Lee’s ”Amazing Grace” was as controlled as it was uncontrived. The way she ducked low on the last note of ”wretch like me” gave me the best kind of chills, and Simon astutely pointed out there’s a twist of ’60s soul beneath her country packaging. Could we be looking at a Shelby Lynne for the Idol generation?

Junot Joyner and Jose Candelaria combined got about half of Kristy Lee’s screen time, but their respective renditions of ”I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and Toni Braxton’s ”Unbreak My Heart” (in Spanish!) were no less memorable. Junot was so clear and unfussy on his Elton John cover that I worry he could be underappreciated by today’s melisma-loving audiences. And while Jose might want to rethink his choice of a leather bowling shirt for broadcast television, let’s not forget that Jennifer Hudson’s hot-pink sartorial sin from early in season 3 didn’t stop her from winning an Oscar.

Speaking of awards, we also have a front-runner for this season’s Most Emotionally Compelling Backstory in 26-year-old wedding singer Angela Martin. After watching the heartbreaking package about her young daughter’s struggle with Rett syndrome, I jotted down on my notebook in all caps, ”PLEASE BE GOOD.” And thankfully, she was. Maybe not good enough to win Idol‘s seventh season — as Simon constructively noted, Angela needs to ”de-weddingize” the overzealous vocal affectations she brought to ”Signed, Sealed, Delivered” — but watching her get tackled by her tearful, squealing family and friends as she left the audition with her golden ticket was the episode’s high point. (And Ryan’s subsequent remark — ”So day one ended on a high: Angela made it through, and I got a new handbag” — may have been the episode’s funniest.)

Indeed, the show’s producers seemed more willing tonight to let the comedy unspool organically, and that meant fewer instances of gimmicky contestants with nothing more to offer than a desperate need to be on national television. And even those moments turned out to be moderately amusing, thanks to the judges’ retorts and reactions. I loved the way Simon’s exhausted ”Why should I bother listening to this?” left that dude who looked like a rejected extra from 300 with nothing better to say than ” ‘Cause it might’ve been entertaining.” No, actually, it wouldn’t have. Oh, and another thing: I saw Steve Carell get his chest hair waxed to sickeningly funny effect back in 2005 during The 40-Year-Old Virgin. You, sir (whose name I refuse to type), are no Steve Carell!

NEXT: Hey, Paula, be careful!