The kinder, gentler season continues in Dallas, where the judges may have let some potential Sanjayas slip through because of their sad stories or winning personalities
American Idol

”American Idol” recap: New Sanjayas?

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and check out the all new version of American Idol! Yes, folks, the nation’s No. 1 television show has been magically transformed into a kinder, gentler program, a place where Simon Cowell doles out hugs, where Randy Jackson participates in gleeful sing-alongs, and where young hopefuls need not be pitch-perfect to score trips to Hollywood. That’s right, all you need is a compelling angle — a brush with death! a battle with addiction! an actual piece of hay between your teeth! — and you’ll be good as gold(en ticket) with the judges!

Okay, yes, I’m being cynical, and perhaps a tad hypocritical, too. I mean, last season, I ragged on Idol‘s producers for a string of audition episodes that reveled in cruelty, turning the show into the all-powerful high school jock who can’t wait to lob an insult at the chubby girl, or slam the fey boy into a locker, or give a wedgie to the mentally challenged kid. So, no, I’m not complaining about the fact that the first four hours of Idol‘s seventh season have been mercifully light on stomach-turning incidents.

In fact, tonight’s show, which focused on two days’ worth of auditions from Dallas, was thoroughly enjoyable. The thing is, though, Idol audition episodes cannot be judged merely on their stand-alone merits; they’re also the foundation upon which entire Idol seasons are built. And that’s why I get a little skittish when I think long and hard about the 10 successful auditions shown tonight (out of the 24 golden tickets doled out in Dallas).

Take Kayla Hatfield, for example. You’d have to be an absolute ogre to have rooted against the magnificently chipper woman who’d suffered a devastating car accident as a teenager. I was so busy marveling at Kayla’s resemblance to The Closer‘s Kyra Sedgwick (and admiring her saucy black leather boots and butterfly sequined top) that I didn’t notice the scarring on the left side of her face until she mentioned it in her interview package.

Simon’s response to the young mother of two — ”Kayla, I want to be you for one hour a day. Maybe two.” — has to rank among his most heartfelt moments over the last seven seasons. And so, while Paula was completely correct in voting against Kayla’s trip to Hollywood after a rocky (albeit heartfelt) take on Janis Joplin’s ”Piece of My Heart,” I was secretly thrilled when Simon and Randy voted to let her through to the next round anyway.

If only Kayla were the evening’s one questionable call. But nope, there was also hunky farm boy Drew Poppelreiter, decked out in his plaid flannel shirt, extra-tight jeans, and big ol’ belt buckle, advancing to the next round on the basis of his less-than-enthralling rendition of George Strait’s ”Check Yes or No.” Once he had popped a stalk of hay into his mouth during his interview package and delivered a practiced ”yes, ma’am” to Paula, you knew he was heading to Hollywood. Even though Simon voted no. And even though Paula herself noted the lack of ”wow factor” in the kid’s performance. Let’s be honest: If he can’t dazzle an audience of three in a pimped-out conference room, what are the chances he’ll excel in front of a massive live audience? Voters beware: It’s all well and good to fall for an ”aw, shucks” teenager in the audition room; just make sure you’re not about to unleash Sanjaya 2.0 on your fellow Idol fans.

On a similar note, even though each of ’em won over at least two-thirds of the judging panel, I’m not terribly optimistic about glee-club member Kyle Ensley (did his rendition of ”Somebody to Love” really say pop star to any of you?), tattoo-sporting, fauxhawk-wearing Pia ”Zpia” Easley (a triumph of beauty and inner sparkle over middling vocal talent), sexy but shrill Nina Shaw (sharing a hometown with Kelly Clarkson does not an idol make), or Brandon Green (whiny voice + disgusting bag of old fingernail clippings = worst Hollywood-bound contestant ever).

Weirder still, remember Kady Malloy, the contestant who left Simon cooing, ”Of all the people we’ve seen so far this year, you’re the best”? Right now, when I close my eyes and concentrate with every Idol-obsessed fiber of my being, I cannot recall her face or her much-praised rendition of ”Unchained Melody.” The only thing that’s stayed with me in the 120 minutes since Idol ended is her spot-on (and very funny) impersonation of Britney Spears.

Uh-oh, 763 words into this column, and I just realized that Idol‘s sweetest-ever episode has turned me into Cranky McCrankenpants. (Too. Much. Sugar.)

So let me abruptly reverse course. I genuinely liked a couple of the contestants tonight. Colton Swon may have borrowed his ‘do from the scary-haired ’80s act Kajagoogoo and his name from a pile of rejected character monikers from The Bold and the Beautiful, but his rendition of Little Big Town’s ”Boondocks” reminded me of Chris Daughtry with a little country spice and none of the brooding seriousness. I’d bet money he lands a spot in the top 24. (And nope, I haven’t read a single one of the spoiler sites, so I’m just guessing.)

And despite an interview package that played far too much like an anti-methedrine PSA — no, I am not speaking for methedrine use, just speaking against the Dr. Phil-ization of Idol — Jessica Brown brought a surprising depth and tenderness to her rendition of the Pretenders’ ”I’ll Stand by You.” Simon was totally right: Jessica ”made the song interesting.”

NEXT: Good bad auditions

I also have to (for the second night in a row) commend the producers for their choice of audition belly flops. Paul Stafford’s depressing take on Elliott Yamin paid huge dividends when Simon chimed in with his own brief (Stafford-influenced) version of ”Wait for You.” And Beth Maddocks’ awful performance of Kelly Clarkson’s ”Beautiful Disaster” may not have been particularly entertaining, but her comrade with the FCC-taunting neckline more than made up for it. Be proud, dearie, your gal pal didn’t make it to Hollywood, but you’re well on your way to a Girls Gone Wild video appearance!

Of course, the producers’ saved the b(izarr)est for last, in the form of 44-year-old Renaldo Lapuz. Maybe his appearance got hyped before one too many commercial breaks. Or maybe I’ve seen the ”pimp costume” trotted out for comic effect one too many times. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never been a fan of the ”accents ‘r’ funny” school of comedy. I just couldn’t get a solid laugh out of Renaldo’s ”We’re Brothers Forever” number (not even after Paula, Randy, and Ryan joined in). Instead, I saved my chuckling for the post-audition confessional, where Renaldo seemed to be spearheading a ”Simon for Sainthood” campaign. I’ll admit it: Those close-ups of the cranky British judge with a glowing halo were pretty hilarious. Still, next week, I’m hoping Simon’s inner devil gets his mojo back. Idol isn’t quite the same when he’s not around to inject a little reality into America’s favorite reality program.

How are you feeling about the kinder, gentler Idol? And what about some of the night’s other rejected contestants? Does anyone think the producers put through karaoke queen Angela Reilly just so they could showcase her scorching-hot model husband for a few minutes? Was sweaty, whispery Douglas Davidson for real? And did you die inside a little when Bruce ”Never Been Kissed” Dickson put his key into his dad’s heart locket?

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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