On ''American Idol,'' wanna-be Mary was no worse than Ashlee Simpson. So why did the show's producers target this fragile soul?
Paula Abdul, Mark McGrath, ...

”American Idol”: Early favorites and flameouts

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mary Roach is in no way the worst singer ever featured on American Idol. Sure, she’s got an ungainly, high-pitched warble and new-wave dance moves that would make Elaine Benes look like Janet Jackson. But at the end of the day, if you put her on a massive stadium stage with sound mixers, a backing vocal track, and a seven-piece band, would her rendition of ”I Feel the Earth Move” have sounded any worse than, say, Ashlee Simpson’s performance of ”La La” at this year’s Orange Bowl?

Now before you accuse me of not ”getting it,” of being one of those softies who are unable to laugh along with Idol‘s so-bad-you-can’t-look-away audition rounds, let me admit that a little Diet Coke made its way into my nose while I was watching Toni Braxton’s alleged cousin Derek attack and kill ”How Could an Angel Break My Heart?” with cheetah-like efficiency. As Derek’s eyes widened with — I’m not quite certain what: Indignation? Pride? Crack? — and he predicted his multiplatinum future, I silently begged Simon to give Derek’s beastly ego a WWE-style smackdown. After all, a reality check can be a positive in a world where ”I’m okay, you’re okay” has left too many folks with delusions that they can (and should) follow their every dream, even when lack of talent, training, and drive dictate otherwise. So why did Simon just phone in a tepid ”weirdest voice I’ve ever heard” instead of going for the jugular?

Maybe he was waiting to get to St. Louis to give his best verbal bitch slap to Cruise Ship Betty (a.k.a. Joe Schoen). You know a contestant is ripe for ridicule when he travels with an entourage big enough to rival J. Lo’s and proclaims he’s got ”the whole package” before singing his first note. By the time Simon told this guy that he indeed sounded like he’d just stepped off Royal Caribbean (a pretty accurate description), the misguided Schoen huffed that although he’d once performed on the high seas, ”they had me sing Broadway.” Yes, you sang Andrew Lloyd Weber. But Blanche, you still did it on a cruise ship! And don’t even get me started with Schoen’s criticizing the range of season 3 Idol victress Fantasia Barrino. I was all up in my TV shouting, ”Oh no you don’t, Joe! Fantasia knows how to get down with the get-down!” And then I broke out in the Bo-Bo! Which probably looked a little something like one of poor Mary’s moves.

Yes, we’re back to her. Is it just me, or is it an unspoken Idol rule that if you’re traditionally good-looking but totally talentless, you’ll get off with a jab from Simon, an eye-roll from Randy, or maybe a camera in your face to catch those crocodile tears for your audition reel? But that’s as far as the producers will take it.

Poor Mary, well, she didn’t quite fit that description. When I looked at her, I saw a young woman whose white jeans were a tad too snug and rode a tad too low, whose red shirt showed a little too much flesh, whose hair and makeup would make you think twice about hiring her in her trained profession as a cosmetician.

But on the other hand, I also saw a girl with some spunk, one who jauntily declared her intention to change her last name from Roach to Guilbeaux. (C’mon now, that’s pretty funny stuff, not the ramblings of a madwoman; Fox should’ve hooked our gal up with the writing team at Arrested Development!) And was it just me, or was Mary totally in on the joke when she started talking about the voices in her head: ”They’re also telling me Mark McGrath is a hottie,” she said in the most deadpan fashion. Score another one for Guilbeaux!

But instead of getting a high-five for her off-kilter wit, Mary got one sandwich de knuckles. Why the music from Psycho, the relentless grilling about the ”friends” who encouraged her to audition, a camera in her face as she made a futile vow not to cry on television? To me, the thing that made Mary’s moment even worse than last season’s utterly tasteless torpedoing of William Hung was her growing awareness that the joke she thought she was in on had suddenly and mercilessly turned on her. Right before our very eyes, a sweet fragile soul with a self-described ”unique vocal style” got crushed, reality-style.

It should’ve happened to someone more deserving.

In fact, can I make the suggestion that Idol eat one of its own? I’d love to see an episode devoted to making the smug Ryan Seacrest reaudition for his job against a few hundred thousand candidates from around the country. In fact, that’s not a bad idea for a summer spin-off, is it? (Gail Berman, if you’re reading this, I’ll be expecting a producer credit — and some royalty checks). Fox might even consider a Celebrity Idol with Nick Carter, Lindsay Lohan, and other pre-fab pop tarts all competing for the right to keep making music. Imagine them trying to fake their way past Simon and Randy, and, yes, even Paula.

Speaking of which, did I see Ms. Abdul (who’s really working overtime to keep her spot on Blackwell’s worst-dressed list) trying to impress pleasantly inoffensive celebrity guest judge Mark McGrath with displays of authority, or has girlfriend actually started to develop the very beginnings of a backbone?

I had to rewind and make sure I heard right on Wednesday night’s show when Paula voted to end the Idol ambitions of two consecutive (and halfway decent) contestants. And how about that montage of her shouting, ”Shut up!” to Simon, Randy and anyone else at whom she could spew her milquetoast venom? I think she almost meant what she said! As her backup singers put it on the minor 1992 hit ”Vibeology,” ”Go Paula! Go Paula!”

Anyway, at least the first two episodes of AI: 4 gave us a peek at a few candidates who might produce the ”Vibeology”s of the future. I didn’t fall for anyone like I did for Frenchie Davis, but that girl who’s apparently never left her farm, Carrie Underwood, she’s like Reese Witherspoon channeling Xtina! Which kinda gives me chills — in a good way, I think. And how ’bout break-dancer Travis Tucker: He’s got the body, the voice, and a signature dance to boot. (Do the heart pump, everybody!)

Oh boy. Something tells me it’s time to start reviewing my speed-dialing technique. After all, I can’t live with another Tamyra Gray debacle. Or for that matter a Trenyce redux. Or a Jennifer Hudson travesty!

Speaking of travesties, will Regina Brooks be getting back her hocked wedding ring? Did you buy it when Angel Higgs collapsed in tears after her star student Jeremy failed to get a matching ticket to Hollywood? And what about Mary — is she a victim of network TV brutality, or simply of her own ego?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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