The new format of Hollywood Week eliminates the group bickering and refocuses the attention on singing and the drama of auditions

”American Idol” recap: Making and breaking

Simon Cowell delivers hundreds of pithy one-liners over the course of an American Idol season — ”You have the stage presence of a flea” has officially joined his repertoire of classics — but one comment in particular tonight perfectly summed up the Hollywood Week proceedings:

”This stage makes you or breaks you.”

And that’s one of two reasons why Idol fans hold Hollywood Week in such high regard (the other being that at two episodes long, it’s the much-needed Pepto-Bismol after a beastly smorgasbord of audition rounds). Indeed, it’s one thing for the Alesha Stelzls and Ghaleb Emachahs of the world to stand in a hotel conference room and convince two out of three Idol judges that they sound like the respective second comings of Dolly Parton and Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots. It’s quite another for them to test their middling voices against a small army of powerhouse vocalists, a dozen or two of whom proved tonight that they might just be good enough to inherit the crown that’s made household names out of Fantasia Barrino, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood.

Seriously, I can’t remember a Hollywood Week episode that showcased quite as much talent as we saw tonight, and Idol‘s producers deserve a round of applause for nixing the fight-provoking group auditions and realizing all we want to do is watch singers step out from behind the wings, one at a time, to either deliver the goods or collapse under the weight of the judges’ expectations. Or to put it another way, who needs a five-minute package about the bratty teenager who refuses to learn the dance steps to ”Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” when there are 164 performers giving the most important auditions of their lives? It doesn’t take TNT to know that’s drama!

And while Nigel Lythgoe & Co. unsurprisingly used the bulk of tonight’s two hours to pimp their preordained favorites — congratulations to David Archuleta, Carly Smithson, and Michael Johns on hitting the season 7 jackpot! — I was stoked to see two additional front-runners emerge.

First and foremost was David Hernandez, recipient of Simon’s aforementioned ”makes you or breaks you” comment after a pitch-perfect rendition of ”Love the One You’re With.” I loved the way David seamlessly transitioned from the slowed-down opening notes to a surprisingly groovy mid-tempo midsection without abusing the melody. And his post-audition freestyle — ”I’m here until Thursday/What you gotta say?” — proved he’s got humor, and possibly some not-terrible dance moves, in his corner.

Similarly, Asia’h Epperson trotted out a secret weapon of her own (abs of steel!) during her fearsome rendering of ”I’m Goin’ Down.” I’ll admit, I didn’t adore Asia’h’s ”How Do I Live” last week (performed only 48 hours after her father’s death, in her defense), but I nodded along in agreement tonight when Simon declared, ”I lllloved that!” and sent Asia’h and her abdominals to the top 50.

And even though it’s in my genetic code to resist wide-grinning teenage-boy contestants on Idol — have we learned nothing from John Stevens, Will Makar, and Sanjaya Malakar? — I swear my glass of Shiraz tasted an awful lot like the producers’ Kool-Aid in the middle of David Archuleta’s interview package. Granted, he gets 10 points deducted for choosing Bryan Adams’ ”Heaven.” (Don’t try to defend a 16-year-old delivering lines like ”thinkin’ about our younger years.” Like when? Pre-K?) But his voice was so clear and pure that I could totally understand why the backup singer on the left of the screen wiped a tear from her eye during his performance. Prep yourself for a long season of Paula bon mots like ”You’re a gem for the whole world to see,” because caucus-primary season for the all-important Grandma-Tweener Party is almost over.

The good news is that plenty of other voter blocs are being accounted for, too. Rocker types can rally behind either Amanda Overmyer, whose fresh cover of the Doors’ ”Light My Fire” made me want to smoke a pack of Marlboro Reds to momentarily achieve the delicious rasp she brought to her performance, and David Cook, who may have fallen flat on a couple notes of ”(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” but gets credit for not making me hate the song as much as I normally would.

Side note: I now interrupt this TV Watch for a burning question: Were the producers handing out blueberry popsicles backstage at the theater? Because when David and Carly Smithson took the stage, their tongues were the most alarming shades of aquamarine.

Poor Carly completed her alarming look with a yellow eye shadow — actually, let’s hope it was eye shadow and not tattooed eyelids — that left her looking positively jaundiced. I wonder how much more I would’ve enjoyed her slow, soulful rendition of ”Alone” — which was, to my ear, far less karaoke than previous Idol renditions by Carrie Underwood and Gina Glocksen — if I hadn’t been worried Carly was suffering some kind of liver infection.

NEXT: Potential disasters ahead!

Of course, it wouldn’t be Idol if we weren’t careening toward the semifinals with at least a handful of potentially disastrous contestants, and while we lost Suzanne ”Doll Hair” Toon, Perrie ”Single Dad” Cataldo, Amy ”the Virgin” Flynn, and Brooke ”Pageant Queen” Helvie (who can now fulfill her destiny and go marry a nice wealthy man…I kid, I kid!), I still spy a couple potential stinkers left in the pack.

Sure, Syesha Mercado looks like a pop star, and interviews like a pop star (right down to the too-cute flash cards she used to save her strained singing voice), so then why does she have to go and shout her songs like a barker at the local carnival? Syesha may have hit most of the right notes on ”Chain of Fools,” but she lacked all the subtlety and sex appeal of Aretha Franklin’s version. Note that Paula told Syesha she’d given ”the performance of your lifetime,” which isn’t exactly saying she outsang anyone else in the top 50. (The Abdul Code: Coming to a Barnes & Noble near you!)

I’m also troubled that I might have to suffer through at least one more week of the following: Kyle Ensley, who doesn’t seem to realize that Clay Aiken and Josh Groban only get away with being geeky because they don’t go all flat on their big notes; Ilsy Lorena Pinot, whose rendition of ”Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” was as wretched as the pink and black checkered napkin she used as a skirt; and long-haired Robbie Carrico, who had the dubious distinction of delivering the most forgettable of the evening’s multitude of Bryan Adams covers.

Which leaves me to discuss two clearly talented contestants who left me with mixed feelings tonight. I’ll start with a note to Kristy Lee Cook: We regret to inform you that every week will not be ”Amazing Grace” week. Start your search for new material now!

As for the matter of Josiah Leming, well, the kid who lives out of his car got more screen time than any other contestant tonight and used it to alternately win me over and alienate me throughout the episode. Exhibit A: I don’t ever want to hear a teenager with a faux British accent utter a line like ”I’ve made every mistake a man could make in the past year.” (Doubtful!) Exhibit B: Josiah’s off-kilter choice of Mika’s ”Grace Kelly,” and the fact that he pulled it off with jauntiness and style, had me agreeing with Simon: ”This is the one I’m gonna remember.” Exhibit C: Josiah’s dubious ”Stand by Me” was part Chris Martin, part Froggy from the Little Rascals, and that remark about his own courage was not cute. Exhibit D: The tears! (Hey, I’m not made of stone!)

No matter how Josiah’s story plays out as we head for the top-24 announcement, he’s certainly made Idol interesting these last couple weeks. And with that, I’ll use Simon’s admonishment of the kid as a hat tip to the top 164: ”Everyone has a lot of guts to get up there.”

How did you feel about the new and improved Hollywood Week? Did you, like me, find drummer Jake Mellema’s ”Hooked on a Feelin’ ” so wedding-band-y that you expected someone to bring a shrimp platter and a glass of champagne to your couch? Wouldn’t you say PG-rated nanny Brooke White sounds more like Sophie B. Hawkins than, as Simon argued, Carly Simon or Carole King? Shouldn’t Michael Johns always wear short-sleeved shirts? And aren’t you glad Natashia Blach got one more shot after ad-libbing, ”Kill me now,” as she botched the lyrics of ”Sway”?

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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