In San Diego, a reportedly professional singer and a lovable single father with a cute kid catch us off guard and prove that the auditions can still move us
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
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A wave of anxiety rolled over me at 8 p.m. tonight. Two elderly gentlemen in fishing hats appeared on my TV screen and unenthusiastically said, ”Welcome to American Idol, San Diego, California.” In the background, you could hear Ryan Seacrest trying to prompt the old codgers to ”do it one more time, with a little more excitement,” but no dice: Take two was just as lethargic.

The whole scene was meant to be comical, but instead it briefly reignited a fear that got stirred up for me on Tuesday morning, when a colleague popped by my office and told me he’s not watching Idol anymore because over the previous six seasons, he feels he’s seen every kind of audition the show’s producers could possibly present. ”What if he’s got a point?” I thought to myself. ”What if Idol‘s tested formula of showcasing the good, the bad, and the gimmicky is about to start producing diminishing returns?”

Well, hold on to your Orvis catalogs. Tonight’s hour proved that Idol has some worms left in its bait can. (Sorry, this fishing metaphor has me hooked through the gills.) True, Simon has tossed off his trademark barbs more times than Fox has promised House‘s hardest-to-diagnose case ever. But each new face that shows up in Idol‘s audition room holds a type of dramatic potential that you can’t get in a scripted series. I mean, everyone knows Grissom and his team will crack the case on CSI; on Idol, there are no such certainties. Voices, minds, even lives can crack, or soar, or explode with just a few bars of music.

Take, for example, Carly Smithson, the tattooed Irish songbird who closed tonight’s show. If you follow Idol gossip at all, you might know that Smithson (formerly Carly Hennessy) was signed to a six-album deal with MCA Records earlier this decade. (Click here to read a fascinating Wall Street Journal account of her disastrous and expensive trajectory, and here to check out her video for ”I’m Gonna Blow Your Mind,” which I blogged about late last week.)

Anyhow, knowing all this, I approached Carly’s audition with skepticism. Didn’t she already get her shot at the Big Show? Why should she get a second chance on Idol? If she cracked the top 24, would I have nightmares about her husband using his face as a canvas for a piece called ”Hellraiser in Green”? And why the heck would she choose to audition with ”I’m Every Woman” when it ranks a close second (behind ”Against All Odds”) as the most played-out number in Idol history? (Side note: Isn’t it time the producers put a moratorium on this and another 20 to 30 overdone ditties?)

Then, moments later, something unexpected happened. Carly won me over. Just a little bit. Not by virtue of her very good (though not amazing) audition. But rather through her vulnerability. (Yeah, I’m sappy like that.) Here was a woman who’d been on the brink of stardom, now swallowing her pride and auditioning just like every pharmacy clerk and auto mechanic and nine-to-fiver who’d made their way to San Diego. And when the judges voted unanimously to send her to Hollywood, her tearful confessional actually got me a little choked up. ”Everything’s been like right there in front of me — I just haven’t been able to hold on to it,” she said, adding that she planned to ”work really hard” to advance in the competition. (Okay, maybe the Irish accent made it all that more stirring, but I like a contestant with a good work ethic, okay?)

Admittedly, Nigel Lythgoe & Co. edited the whole package to make us think Carly’s biggest career setback was losing her season 5 golden ticket over visa issues (thanks for the full disclosure, guys!), but Carly’s audition made me reach two conclusions. First of all, unless a singer has achieved true success on the charts, why shouldn’t he or she be eligible for the show? And second, Idol — graying and manipulative and maddening as it may be — still has the power to surprise us.

None of this is to say, of course, that when or if Carly reaches the top 24, I’ll necessarily be rooting for her. Indeed, there’s always something more appealing about contestants who are rank amateurs or who face hardships bigger than having been dropped by a major label.

NEXT: Daddy dearest

One such singer is single father Perrie Cataldo, who wisely brought his adorable son to his audition. I swear, I heard the sound of the nation’s collective ovaries kicking into gear the second they showed the kid falling asleep on his dad’s lap — mid-interview! Okay, so Perrie caught a little Mariah-itis on his overwrought rendition of ”I’ll Make Love to You.” But Boyz II Men’s original was pretty melismatic, too, so for now, I’ll forgive (and hope dude chooses better material going forward).

And, continuing a positive season 7 trend, the producers managed to showcase four additional Hollywood-bound contestants (from 31 total San Diego successes). Two of them (attractive blonde Tetiana Ostapowych and attractive brunette Samantha Musa) were just aiight for me, but two male contestants (both of whom reportedly have semipro backgrounds) bear watching.

Dreamy Michael Johns (who apparently once fronted a band that had an unfruitful deal with Maverick Records) delivered a decent ”I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” that prompted Simon’s most obvious comment of the season (”you’re a white soul singer”), and if you consider that both Constantine Maroulis and Sanjaya Malakar managed to inspire lusty screams in their respective seasons, the hunky Australian’s entry into the top 24 could result in permanent hearing damage for Idol‘s live viewing audiences.

Quite the opposite, David Archuleta (reportedly a Star Search winner at age 12) could be poised to play the role of season 7’s sexually nonthreatening heart-throb, though his choice of John Mayer’s ”Waiting on the World to Change” (once covered by Sanjaya) and his general perkiness made me a little uneasy.

Oh, and on the subject of uneasy, how’d you all like Simon’s insane mispronunciation of Barack Obama’s surname? I know the cranky British judge isn’t obligated to follow American politics, but he spends enough time in this country that you’d expect better than ”Oh-b’mah,” no?

Two names it’s probably safe to forget are Monique Gibson and Christopher Baker, who might want to consider expanding their circle of singing coaches beyond, well, each other. Monique, with her lace-bottomed leggings and winter boots, gets a 10 for creativity for inserting the Jackson 5’s ”Who’s Loving You” in between bookend slaughterings of Whitney Houston’s ”I Believe in You and Me” (ending with Mariah’s ”Dreamlover” and Brandy’s ”I Wanna Be Down”). On technical merit, however, girlfriend did not fare as well. Indeed, Simon’s understated assessment of her skills — ”There’s nothing wrong with walking out of here knowing you can’t sing” — is a mantra that every rejected contestant should be forced to repeat 25 times before Fox’s camera crew will agree to film any profanity-laced tirades against Idol, its judges, and humanity in general.

Christopher, meanwhile, may have watched Madonna’s version of Evita one too many times, what with the way he delivered ”The Greatest Love of All” with arms outstretched, the crowd in his mind chanting his name from beneath the balcony of the Casa Rosada. Did these two really take offense at their ousters, or did they flawlessly feign outrage to score some added screen time?

I had a similar question about Alberto Hurtado, who seemed so earnestly off-kilter with the sequined gold eagles on his shirt and jeans, his giant green fan declaring his Idol fandom, and his downbeat original track called ”Live.” But when the cameras cut to the guy spinning a Barbie doll like a top and hilariously cooing, ”It’s the paso doble,” I wondered if maybe I had been duped. Either way, I’m not complaining: I never knew that Barbie could get down like that, and I guess that means the old Idol might still have a few new tricks.

What did you think of the San Diego show? Were you happy Fox kept it to 60 minutes, instead of foisting another two-hour episode on us? And what about Carly? Does she have a right to be on the show, or is she so much of a pro that she’s got an unfair edge on her less-seasoned rivals?

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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