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American Idol recap: 'Opry'-tunity knocks!

Country music proves to be a great equalizer as several under-the-radar contestants draw even with the preordained front-runners

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American Idol 0317
Michael Becker/American Idol/Getty Images; Ray Mickshaw/Fox(2)

American Idol

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

I’ve got a hideously early flight to catch on Wednesday morning, and so all day long I’ve been telling myself: ”No dilly-dallying tonight, Slezak! No Google image searches for galloping ponies. No pre-ordering Allison Iraheta performances off iTunes. No disrupting Annie Barrett with IMs asking her how far along she is with her Dancing With the Stars TV Watch. Focus on your writing. Give a run-down of the Grand Ole Opry Night performances — in order of preference — hit the save button, finish packing, and try to get some sleep!”

But of course, it wouldn’t be a two-hour Idol telecast without scads of weird little moments that have nothing, really, to do with advancing America’s wonderfully time-consuming, thoroughly maddening, unhealthily obsessive search for its next singing star. From Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi offering contestants the kind of advice that’d make Snow White’s wicked stepmother clutch her pearls in horror, to mentor Randy Travis discovering the decades-old art of male fingernail-painting, to Ryan Seacrest finally admitting that the Idol viewing experience can be improved with an alcoholic beverage (or two), it was a strange night indeed.

Early front-runners wobbled like the Weebles of my childhood. (Do they make those things anymore? Anyone?) Under-the-radar singers exploded their performances like flare guns, perhaps just to see if anyone at the judges table was paying attention (aside from the once-again consistently astute Paula Abdul). And we witnessed some of the most dramatic coughing since Nicole Kidman came down with the consumption in Moulin Rouge!.

(Side note: In order to distinguish between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Travis, we will, from this point forward refer to the former as ”Randy” — yes, the Dawg wins out, due to his Idol seniority, and the fact that he once appeared on Idolatry — while the latter has to settle for the decidedly less jaunty Mr. Travis.)

But anyhow, with the two-headed goal of providing a nutritious TV Watch without sleeping through my alarm, let’s get back to the contestants’ performances. And we’ll go in order from best to worst:

Kris Allen: It would be easy to dismiss Kris as ”a tender puppy,” the way Simon jokingly did while trying to riff on Randy’s oddly insistent dubbing of the dreamy troubadour as a ”tender dawg.” I mean, with those dark and limpid pools of his, and that eager-to-please disposition, Kris is only a cool, damp nose and a wagging tail away from setting up shop in the window of your local pet store. But while it’s true that the guy has heartthrob potential — anyone else observe how infuriatingly flawless his skin is, even under the unforgiving microscope of high-def TV? — the true beauty of Kris’s performance had nothing to do with his physical attributes.

Instead, it was the gutsy vocal restraint Kris displayed on ”To Make You Feel My Love” that won me over. And yes, I did say gutsy. Because when it comes to Idol — and what the judges and the show’s voters often respond to — bombast all too often trumps vulnerability. And yet Kris didn’t oversing a single note of the ”Garth Brooks” number (*known as a Bob Dylan tune, at least in my house), choosing instead to finesse certain words of the verse down to a whisper, and refusing to indulge in the time-honored tradition of making eye-love to the Idol cameras.

NEXT: Anoop comes back strong