New judge Kara DioGuardi joins our original three in Phoenix at the start of season 8 for the fun that is the early auditions, where some thrill (Deanna Brown), others confound (X-Ray), and one inspires (Scott MacIntyre)

By Michael Slezak
January 14, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST
  • TV Show

‘American Idol’ recap: And so it begins

In my twisted mind, the typical American Idol audition episode is the reality-show equivalent of The Silence of the Lambs, but instead of human victims, cherished selections from the American songbook are left screaming for mercy down in the basement pit. And, of course, subbing for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, the upstart agent with the West Virginia twang and a mind for crime, we get Simon Cowell, the seen-it-all record exec with the uppity British accent and a weakness for shameless chicks who are as short on talent as they are on clothing.

Tonight’s eighth season premiere, though, played more like Lambs whittled down for a primetime network viewing audience. Gone (thankfully) were the gory and gratuitous moments — the gleefully unflinching mockery of folks with obvious physical, mental, and emotional woes — that often made Idol‘s opening weeks a chore for those of us who are more interested in discovering the next Jennifer Hudson than, say, William Hung 2.0. But just because the judges picked (mostly) on egos close to their own size didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of moments tonight that had me scrambling to shield my eyes with my hands.

There was Ryan Seacrest offering a high-five to a blind man. There was a young woman giving us a tour of her bikini-waxing regions before we’d even learned her last name. And how about the montage of contestants who apparently don’t know the difference between cities, countries, and continents? (Did Congress pass the controversial No Child’s Ignorance Left Untelevised Act when I wasn’t paying attention?)

And while I could complain that (as usual) the producers almost completely skimped on showing us the kinds of talented singers that can make an Idoloonie start dreaming of the Nokia Theater in May, let’s start by focusing on five huge positives from tonight’s telecast.

1. Simon was in truly hilarious form — without ever reverting to a soul-crushing ”Bush Baby” moment. Yes, not only did the cranky Brit avoid falling back on his overused ”cruise ship”/”cabaret” critiques, but he pounded his punch lines harder and faster and more frequently than winners off Roger Federer’s forehand side at Wimbledon. Simon’s zestiest zinger came as he listened to Paula advise misguided rocker Randy Madden that he needed to experience the camaraderie of a band to improve his musical artistry. ”How do you think ‘Straight Up’ was written?” deadpanned Simon. (Although, for the record, ”Straight Up” is an undeniable classic.) And then, of course, there was 16-year-old Arianna Afsar explaining how she and her pals work to cheer up lonely nursing-home residents through her ”Adopt a Grandfriend” foundation. ”So if Paula came to Arizona on her own,” interjected Simon, ”you would help her out?” Honestly, you cannot script stuff that good. (I actually enjoyed Arianna loose, playful performance; I just wish she’d waited three or four years to iron out some of the robotic ”I’m a precocious teen star!” traits that eventually made me turn against Lisa Tucker, Paris Bennett, and Diana DeGarmo, to name a few past contestants.)

NEXT: The new judge brings it

2. Kara DioGuardi brought some much-needed snap to the stale dynamic of the judges’ panel. I can’t help but wonder if Simon stepped up his verbal game because there’s finally someone else behind the table who’s consistently paying attention and who has a repertoire of more than three adjectives at her disposal. But regardless of her effect on Simon, ”LaLa,” or ”The Dawg,” Kara undoubtedly offered some of the night’s best and most interesting critiques and settled into her new position with the ease of someone who’s been doing it since the days of Ryan Starr and Justin Guarini. I’m sure her confrontation with Bikini Girl — hey, if she can’t be bothered to get dressed, I can’t be bothered to write down her name — will be dismissed by some as a case of ”older hot chick feeling threatened by younger hot chick,” but I think that misses the point.

For starters, Ryan Seacrest kicks off every show with a reminder that “THIS…is American Idol,” and if memory serves, at no point in the last seven seasons has he amended the title to America’s Next Top Hoochie Video Extra. What’s more, Simon has dismissed contestants in the past — without so much as hearing a single note — if they dared show up in costumes. So, really, would it have been so unfair to boot a woman for arriving at her audition wearing about one-third of the total clothing sported by Christina Aguilera in her video for ”Dirrty”? And while, yeah, those of you on Team Bikini could argue that Jessica Simpson rocked her own tiny two-piece a few years back in the video for her remake of ”These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” you would then be automatically disqualified from this debate on account of that track being the worst remake of all-time ever.

But getting down to the semi-naked truth, Kara was right: Bikini Girl’s version of ”Vision of Love” had no swing whatsoever — except for the tacked-on vocal run she coughed up in a last-ditch effort to out-sing the show’s newest judge. That little bit of caterwauling swung all right — swung like a terrified cat being bandied about the room by its tail! I want to hate Simon for stamping Bikini Girl’s ticket (no double-entendre intended there), but deep down, I choose to believe he just thinks she’ll make good cannon-fodder when Hollywood week arrives. Still, instead of seeing this bimbo get booted for, say, forgetting the lyrics during a group rendition of ”Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” wouldn’t it be better if she didn’t get a second of screen time during Hollywood week whatsoever? (Producers: Please take that idea under advisement. In fact, I’ll be honored if you steal it.)

NEXT: Ryan gets lucky…sort of

That said, I will admit to one genuine laugh at the end of the Bikini Girl segment, which brings me to my next bit of praise for tonight’s show…

3. The producers used background music, editing, and sound effects far more creatively than they have for several seasons. Case in point: After Bikini Girl made good on her promise to smooch Ryan if she scored a golden ticket, the producers queued up none other than Katy Perry’s ubiquitous ”I Kissed a Girl.” Now, I’ve never been a fan of the infantile ”gay or metrosexual?” game the show so enjoys playing with Ryan, but I’d be lying if I said this particular instance wasn’t successful in its aims. In other words, I laughed. I laughed hard. And I’m only mildly embarrassed that I did.

I also got a kick out of the low-budget effect where the producers tinted each of the judges a horrific shade of green, and played the shark-attack theme from Jaws to indicate contestant Michael Gurr’s fear of appearing before the panel. (Side note: When the borderline unintelligible teen announced he’d be singing ”Starts With Goodbye” by Carrie Underwood, I was convinced he’d said the song was by Karen DeWitt, who happens to be a news correspondent for New York City’s public radio station. Talk about confusion at Casa Slezak!) Oh, and speaking of confusion…

4. I was emotionally manipulated to get a slight lump in my throat during the first 10 minutes of the show. I didn’t actually cry, but, well, you know how it is. They show you all those great moments of Kelly and Fantasia and Crying Girl (still makes me howl), and then they slip in a shot of Elliott Yamin’s late mom, and then follow it up with a montage of season 8 wannabes shouting ”I’m going to Hollywood!” and, well, I AM NOT MADE OF STONE, PEOPLE.

5. And the final reason I loved tonight’s 120-minute singing extravaganza is that I’m already totally sold on Deanna Brown. You don’t have to tell me that I set myself up for major disappointment every year when I get unnaturally attached to the quirky woman who seems oddly un-Idol-esque and never even cracks the semifinals. (I own a Tami Gosnell CD, and if Porcelana Patino had one, I’d buy hers too!) But Deanna, with her dazzling ice-blue eyes, and her aggressively healthy blond locks, and that absolutely winning smile, I think she might be the real deal. I mean, it’s not often that I curse Simon or Paula for cutting off an audition because I’m left desperately wanting more. But Deanna’s ”(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” equal parts gravel and heart and soul, has me thinking she’s a singer who could excel at country or rock or blues, a versatility that would serve her very well on theme-crazy Idol. And as Kara pointed out, Deanna’s is a voice you’d remember if you heard it on the radio. Shouldn’t that be qualification No. 1 for advancing on this show?

NEXT: More promising and inspirational hopefuls

It was too bad, however, that not many of the 10 successful auditions shown tonight showcased folks who looked like serious contenders. And it’s a shame, too, that we didn’t get to hear a single note from the additional 17 folks who made it through to Hollywood Week from Phoenix. (Really, Fox, you couldn’t have cut that ”X-Ray” dude with the foaming mouth to give each of the unseen Hollywood contenders 30 seconds of airtime?)

Of the non-Deanna contestants, I was most enamored of Emily Hughes, who cut quite a picture in her vintage red and white polka-dot dress, heavy tattoos, and pink and blond hair. Oh, and also, ”earrings” the size of dessert plates embedded into her lobes. (Youth!) I’ll give credit where it’s due: Emily certainly gets props for high degree of difficulty for choosing ”Barracuda,” but I felt like her performance merely colored inside the lines of Heart’s original. Not only that, but it seemed unwise in the extreme for Emily to share that her entry into the competition would crush her band’s planned tour of Europe. Has no one told this woman that Idol quite often resembles a popularity contest?

I also enjoyed giggly-without-being-annoying — talk about high degree of difficulty! — Stevie Wright, 16, who displayed a lovely tone on ”At Last,” but also had enough vocal wobbles to make me worry she’ll flame out once she hits the big stage during Hollywood week. Ditto for professional roughneck Michael Sarver, 27, who was strong yet deeply unsubtle on his cover of Boyz II Men on ”Thank You.” As Simon noted, Michael has ”that likability thing,” but then again, so did Sundance Head at this early point in the competition.

And let me go on the record as saying I’ll let my colleague Kristen Baldwin shave my head on an episode of Idolatry if J.B. Ahfua, Cody Sheldon, or Brianna ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy” Quijada take home the season 8 crown. The former two hopefuls seem ripe to fall into the ”pleasant-teen-boy-turned-aural-plague” category once they arrive on Idol‘s big stage. Seriously, J.B. left no good note unpunished on what sounded vaguely like a cover of ”Flying Without Wings”; I can’t confirm the title, though, since the song was taken by ambulance to the trauma ward immediately after J.B. finished pulverizing it. And while it was cute the way horror-film aficionado Cody traveled with an adoring entourage, his performance of ”Wonderful World” was pretty much interchangeable with every middling teenage male Idol hopeful who’s preceded him over the last seven seasons.

Two contestants who stand out as unique in the Idol universe, however, are Alex Wagner-Trugman and Scott MacIntyre. The former definitely wins tonight’s trophy for Most Mesmerizing Eyebrow Action in an Idol Audition, but damn if his rendition of ”Baby Come to Me” wasn’t as smooth as a slightly melted bowl of Dulce de Leche ice cream. Bonus points for best comeback to Simon that I’ve heard in years: When Randy compared Alex to Joe Cocker, Simon declared ”I would say more Cocker Spaniel,” but Alex hit back even harder, declaring ”That would be a good joke if it made any sense.” Touché, dude, you’re goin’ to Hollywood!

MacIntyre, meanwhile, who hasn’t let the fact that he’s legally blind stop him from skiing, ballroom dancing, or getting his sing on for Paula, Kara, Randy, and Simon, managed to be totally inspirational without ever coming off as cloying or saccharine. He’s just a guy who describes his sense of vision as akin to looking through a straw, who has the good humor to wear a ”Mind the Gap” T-shirt, and who’s philosophical enough to say things like ”whatever platform the show gives me, I hope I can be an inspiration.” Honestly, I’m not sure Scott’s rendition of ”And So It Goes” proved he’s vocally strong enough to come close to the top 36, but I think it’s safe to say he’s already succeeded in the inspiration department. Now if he can just get Ryan to stop it with the high-fives.

What did you think of tonight’s season premiere? Did you notice that Paula was the meanest judge, telling deep-voiced Elijah Scarlett he could get voice-over work as a movie monster and pushing to try to get a second song out of disastrous Michael Gurr? Was I the only one who’s not sure if that was the Grand Canyon, or just a carefully painted backdrop, during Ryan’s opening shots? And did that dude really use the ”it’s the journey, not the destination” line within the season’s first 10 minutes?

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