The Nebraska auditions inspire our expert to offer some helpful hints on how to make these improved episodes even better
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”American Idol” recap: Helpful hints

As American Idol enters the third week of its seventh season, it’s clear the show’s producers have taken into account all the criticism fans and pundits threw their way last year. As my colleague Jessica Shaw and I discuss in the most recent installment of Idolatry, Idol is packing its episodes with successful auditions, and that’s led to a precipitous (and applause-worthy) drop in screen time for elderly ladies in skimpy feathered dresses and dudes in lederhosen. Better still, the judges seem to have steered away from giving wedgies to 50-pound weaklings; I wouldn?t blame Fox execs if they wanted to roll out an end-of-episode tagline declaring, ”No person of diminished mental and/or emotional capacity was harmed in the making of this episode.”

And yet, while I can’t argue against these improvements, I’d be lying if I didn’t note that I feel something’s missing from the kinder, gentler Idol. The whole experience has been akin to eating kielbasa without the horseradish. I mean, just because you don’t want a whole jar of the pungent root doesn’t mean you want a meal without some sting, some tingle, and a few brutal barbs delivered in a bored British accent, either.

And so, at the risk of sounding like an ingrate who got exactly what he ordered and is now offering up a list of ”helpful suggestions” to the chef, I’m offering three things I’d have tweaked to bring tonight’s Idol episode closer to perfection — followed by three things the show got exactly right.

1. Please remove Simon’s psychic muzzle At the risk of courting a repeat of Bush Baby-gate, when did Simon Cowell turn into Mister Rogers? Yeah, okay, maybe there was something initially endearing about Chris Bernheisel, but when the guy performed a handstand midway through his butchery of Kelly Clarkson’s ”Since U Been Gone,” he crossed the line from bubbly Idol enthusiast to just another obnox seeking his 15 minutes. So perhaps one of you can explain to me why Simon’s critique — ”I like you. I love the bribes, the presents, the sucking up. But the singing wasn’t good enough” — was such a nonstarter. It couldn’t have been the sweatshirt Chris offered up to Simon (after all, I didn’t see a V-neck!); maybe it was the stuffed pony the guy brought for an absent Paula Abdul?

Then again, if Simon felt some debt of gratitude toward Chris, he should’ve encouraged him to enroll in some basic English courses, the better to avoid malapropisms like dubbing his Idol audition as the ”biggest life-alternating” event he’d experienced. Instead, we got Simon and Randy proposing that Chris cover the Idol finale for his local Fox affiliate? At least Chris’ dad and grandmother responded to said news with the appropriate stony silence.

2. Don’t be so generous with the golden tickets Riddle me this: If Jason Rich’s sleeveless gray T-shirt had revealed pale, flabby limbs instead of glistening golden biceps, would Simon and Randy have sent him to Hollywood after he forgot the lyrics to Keith Whitley’s ”When You Say Nothing at All” not once, not twice, but a whopping three times? Sure, his Daughtry-esque rasp showed promise, but putting a new twist on the farmer’s daughter cliché — he’s the farmer’s daughter’s boyfriend! — does not an Idol make.

Similarly, arm-wrestling nice girl Rachael Wicker and teary-eyed Angelica Puente (or ”Punt,” as Simon would have us pronounce it) showcased sub-Haley Scarnato talent levels and still scored trips to Hollywood. Simon was right when he noted that Rachael performed Lee Ann Womack’s ”Don’t Tell Me to Stop Loving You” like she was on the tail end of a 50-year singing career. Paula, meanwhile, sagely observed that Angelica needed more experience to shed her bombastic Celine Dion impersonation and find her own voice, and yet Paula somehow voted yes to giving her a golden ticket. (Side note: Nice seven-person entourage for a girl supposedly cut off from her immediate family!)

3. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em Sarah ”Lady Morgue” Whitaker was a scream (sorry) when she let out the banshee shriek from her pro-wrestling days, but the rest of her audition was about as fun as getting body-slammed into a slab of concrete. Why not cut her segment to 20 seconds and leave room for more entertaining material, like, say, another subtle product placement for the nice folks at Coca-Cola?

NEXT: Shocker! Is ”Idol” becoming gay-friendly?

All right, enough kvetching about a 60-minute episode that zipped by in what felt more like 30. Clearly, Idol‘s doing a few things right, and it’s high time I listed ’em.

1. Keep bringing music to our ears Not every Hollywood-bound contestant needs a five-minute interview package to get our attention. That triple shot of Hollywood-bound singers — Elizabeth Erkert, Denise Jackson, and Michael Sanfilippo — meant we got to hear a total of nine golden-ticket recipients (out of 19 Omaha success stories) instead of just six. And Elizabeth’s accidental remark about proving to Simon that she was on her way to becoming America’s Next Top Model was a priceless blooper for the reality-TV-obsessed. Now imagine if the producers had cut another 90 seconds of fat from the episode — maybe the listless ”Stuck in the Middle With You” medley — and showcased an additional trio of potential superstars.

Ah well, at least we got a look at a pair of legitimate Top 24 prospects tonight, via Samantha Sidley and David Cook. Slight lisp and wallflower demeanor aside, Samantha’s cover of Norah Jones’ ”Don’t Know Why” was as buttery good as a Pillsbury biscuit, and while Paula was right that her ”showmanship needs a little improvement,” I saw glimmers of star quality in her responses to the judges’ game of musical chairs (more on that in a second).

Likewise, David’s personality occasionally seemed limited to the red highlights in his bangs and his argyle sweater vest, but he changed up Bon Jovi’s lamebrained ”Livin’ on a Prayer” with such languid beauty that I’m itching to hear what he’ll do if he advances to Idol‘s big stage.

2. Keep letting the judges play Simon’s suggestion that Paula and Ryan temporarily swap jobs was worth it, if only for the cranky Brit’s gut-bustingly funny instructions to Paula: ”You go be insincere for five minutes. Ryan can be a judge. Just pretend to like the contestants.”

The only thing funnier all evening was Paula’s shotgun blast of a hiccup in the midst of Johnny Escamilla’s audition to ”Shout.” Simon escalated the comedy by dropping his paper, narrowing his eyes at Paula, and snarling, ”You disgusting little pig.” By the time the gold-clad teenager closed his eyes and began caterwauling along with the wedding band playing somewhere in the back of his head, and Simon finally got honest (”I’ve got to tell you, in every single way, that was just everything I hate — from the jacket, the singing, the dancing…everything”), I’d had my longest laugh of the season.

3. Keep embracing the gay! From the aforementioned (and fierce) Top Model and the always entertaining Project Runway to the treacherous Survivor, reality TV has always been a gay-friendly environment. And that’s why in previous Idol seasons, the grade-school-level ”Eww! You’re gay!” banter between Ryan and Simon (not to mention the unsubtle mockery of fey male contestants) has been so depressing.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when 23-year-old Leo Marlowe wryly introduced himself to Randy, Paula, and Simon with this zinger — ”My mom always said she raised a perfect homecoming queen; too bad it wasn’t one of her daughters” — and then proceeded to deliver a tuneful, potent reading of Donnie Hathaway’s ”Song for You.” No, maybe it wasn’t exactly a ”touchdown,” as Paula declared, but Leo certainly got close to the end zone on more than just his personality. Whaddaya know: I just made a football reference in my Idol TV Watch, and Simon commended a gay contestant for being ”open and not defensive.” Maybe a seven-season-old dog can, in fact, learn some new tricks.

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Are you missing a little bit of Simon’s mean spice? Were you happy you got to see almost half of the successful auditioners? And do you think Leo might actually have a shot at the top 24?

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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