After seven seasons, Simon reveals his lovable side in the final audition episode, livening up a mixed bag of tryouts with wit, charm, and real star power
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Let me start this column with a warning: It’s quite possible that I’ve gone a bit mad tonight. Writing about eight consecutive American Idol audition episodes — and trying to find an interesting and unique angle for each one — can do that to a person.

But even if my mind is as addled as Tiffany McCambell’s rendition of ”Hallelujah,” I still think I’m onto something when I say that Simon Cowell is to Idol what Mary Richards was to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Okay, the decidedly American Mary was sweet, charming, and female, while the decidedly British Simon is cranky, cantankerous, and male. But consider for a moment the lyrics to ”Love Is All Around,” the iconic Mary Tyler Moore theme song, and tell me that with the little tweaks I’ve inserted, they couldn’t have been written for Simon.

Who can turn the world on with his smile? Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile? Well it’s you, Simon, you should know it With each glance and every little movement you show it….

Yeah, I know, I’m pouring out the love for a man who hardly needs an ego boost, but without Simon, this ”Best of the Rest” audition episode would’ve been nothing more than a bland appetizer to tide us over till Hollywood Week. I mean, on a night where golden-ticket holder Alesha Stelzl’s emotionally vacuous warble was used to denigrate the name and voice of the legendary Dolly Parton, the show desperately needed a rock star. And thankfully, Simon heard the call and took on the role himself.

Take, for example, the overlong three-way audition for Ashley Lawing and twin brothers Cory and Chris Lane. The whole package kicked off with a nauseatingly wink-wink, nudge-nudge intro that had me wondering if Ashley was dating both siblings at once (way to sleaze up the family hour, Fox!), but thankfully, she went out with the guys consecutively, not simultaneously.

Either way, while the tired trio brought little to their audition (aside from the world’s most adorable puppy), Simon managed to make the whole affair bearable. First, there was his appalled facial expression at the delayed takeoff of the twins’ pitiful rap number, then again at Cory’s accidental mispronunciation of his own name as ”Coby.” (Side note: If Paula actually wanted to offer constructive advice to the aspiring fameosexuals, she might’ve informed them that wearing matching outfits ceased to be cute after kindergarten.)

Things got even more entertaining, though, when Ashley entered the room with Panda, her six-week-old Pomeranian. I loved how Simon didn’t even bother to maintain his above-it-all mask and simply melted into a puddle of goo when he came face to face with the unspeakably cute fluffball. And then, the way he used just a raised eyebrow and a broad grin at Ashley’s provocative response to his threat to steal Panda — ”as long as you put me through to Hollywood, you can have whatever you want” — well, let’s just say it was the kind of masterful reaction shot that sitcom stars use on their Emmy reels. Unfortunately for Ashley, the flirtation came to a screeching halt (emphasis on screeching) with her rendition of Kellie Pickler’s ”Black High Heels,” but Simon’s put-down (”Even your dog is struggling to get out of the room right now”) was so viciously funny that she left the room still declaring her love for the guy.

And the one-liners just kept on coming. When Tiffany said her dubious vocal abilities were a gift from God, Simon asked, ”Does he have a returns policy?” Better still were the shenanigans that ensued after Joshua ”Jay Smoove” Moreland left the audition-room floor littered with glitter and petals following his baffling original number, ”Beautiful Lady.”

NEXT: Simon cleans up

Whereas last season Simon seemed exhausted maintaining his ongoing verbal sparring match with Ryan Seacrest, this year you can see he’s rediscovered the joy of it. I howled with laughter when Simon called on Ryan to help a female production assistant with sweep-up duty, then accused the host of being ”patronizing to a woman” when he refused to help. But funnier still was Simon playfully coming to the PA’s aid while saying, ”Are we still on camera? Let me do that for you. I don’t allow women to do things like that,” and then treating the dustpan as if it were a mysterious device from an alien planet.

Simon’s ability to deliver punch line after punch line is all the more remarkable when you consider he’s the only voice of reason on the judges’ panel. Why on earth did Paundy (the tone-deaf amalgam of Paula and Randy) say yes to Hollywood cannon fodder like the aforementioned Alesha, unless it was just a set-up for Simon’s ”You’re going to Dollywood” quip? And while the gorgeous plus-size model JoAnne Borgella might have a shot over at America’s Next Top Model, the unpleasant upper register she showcased on Celine Dion’s ”I Love You” has no place on Idol. So how come only Simon had the common sense to vote no?

To be fair to Paundy, I was happy Simon got vetoed in the cases of Cardin Lee McKinney, whose ”One Night Only” may have been breathy and a little old-fashioned, but it nonetheless possessed a lovely tone and the appropriate emotional gusto, and Chikeze Eze, whose mild arrogance wasn’t enough to make me dislike his strong, unfussy ”All the Woman I Need.”

Oh, and on the subject of contestants who are a little too self-possessed, can we discuss 17-year-old Danny Noriega? For a kid who admitted on camera that he fell apart from nerves during last season’s audition process, you’d have thought he’d maybe be a little more, well, humble when he entered the audition room. But nope, there he was interrupting the judges and delivering his quips as if he were channeling egomaniacal Christian from the current season of Project Runway. I mean, yeah, Danny proved he can sing on key with his saucy rendition of ”Proud Mary,” but it all struck me as a tad theatrical for a pop-star wannabe. Perhaps he could pass some of his bravado onto skittish but talented Amy Davis, whose lovely ”Blue Bayou” got a little rushed and wobbly toward the end. Either way, on a night that promised the ”Best of the Rest,” Amy and Danny could only hope to fight it out for second prize. Simon, after all, was the golden boy.

So what do you think? Are you glad the auditions are over and that we’re headed to Hollywood? Did anyone else find it a little odd that Paula followed her ”very pretty” compliment of Amy by promptly demanding to know her ”ethnic background”? Finally, was that shot in the previews of an emotional Kayla Hatfield taken in the final-24 room? If so, way to spoil Hollywood Week suspense, producers!

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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