As the show works overtime to whip up Hollywood Week drama, talented performers get left on the cutting-room floor

By Michael Slezak
February 11, 2010 at 05:00 PM EST
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Q: Ninety-six singers enter the second round of American Idol‘s season 9 Hollywood Week, and break off into an undetermined number of groups comprised of 3-5 contestants each. At least four groups choose to sing that hellacious Gwen Stefani song with the ”woo-hoo, whee-hoo” chorus. If the Jack Black lookalike hits the sack at 3:20 a.m., and Big Mike goes to bed by midnight, which of the following events will happen first: Big Mike’s wife makes a baby, Mary Powers flies off the handle, or a hyper-competitive guy with a surly mug performs a handspring while singing a Lady Gaga chart-topper?

A: None of this matters. Because the annual rite of passage known as ”group auditions” is nothing more than a detour into contrived drama and occasional silliness, dotted with one or two instances of vocal brilliance, followed by panic-inducing cries of ”Wait! Did [insert your favorite contestant’s name here] make it through?”

Speaking of which, I have to admit there is a tiny voice in my head right this second wondering about the fates of singers like Lilly Scott, Mallorie Haley, Keia Johnson, Aaron Kelly and other talented singers I’ve grown mildly/moderately attached to over the last five weeks. The way Idol casually disregards its viewers emotional investment at this point in the competition would be akin to filming a disaster flick with Angelina Jolie, Will Smith, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks in the lead roles, and then spending the middle third of the movie focusing on a band of blurry extras who end up getting killed off anyway. (Not that I’m saying front-runners on Idol should be established early and pimped aggressively (heavens no!); it’s just that once the show has devoted a significant chunk of airtime to a contestant, it could at least do a cursory job of letting us know if we should be expecting an encore!)

What’s frustrating is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe next year in season 10, when this little invention known as the Internet catches on, Ryan Seacrest could end the ”group auditions” episode by saying something like, ”To see the full list of 71 singers who made it to the final round of Hollywood Week, go to AmericanIdol.com.” Surely, I’m not the first Idoloonie to think of such an innovation.

But let’s focus on the positives of tonight’s episode…

Okay, now that we’re done with that — I kid, I kid! Because for all of the hectic (and dare I say shoddy) editing we had to endure tonight, for all of the contestants who seemed to settle for mediocrity, there were a handful of contestants who attempted to deliver the kind of water-cooler moments we saw from Frenchie and Kimberley in season 2, and Blake, Chris, Rudy, and Thomas in season 6. Not that they got much screentime for their efforts, mind you, but we’re gonna make these rare birds the stars of this recap, dammit!

NEXT: J.B. Ahfua redeems himself

Episode MVP definitely goes to ”Middle C,” the trio of Janell Wheeler, Jermaine Purifoy, and Casey James, who blended their disparate voices to beautiful effect on Ne-Yo’s ”Closer.” See the magic that can happen by skipping unnecessary dance moves and presumably behaving like mature adults? Middle C’s performance is all the more admirable because everyone knows grown-up behavior on group night can’t possibly get you more than 31 seconds of total screen time, and will usually relegate you to the last 10 minutes of the episode.

The same exact rules applied for ”Three Men and a Baby” — early front-runners Andrew Garcia and Katie Stevens, along with J.B. Ahfua (a returning auditioner from season 8), and a fourth dude the producers apparently hated so much that they decided to not bother flashing his name on the screen for the enjoyment of his friends and family at home.

TMAAB delivered the episode’s tightest harmonies on Alicia Keys’ ”No One,” although out of the small snippets of solos we saw, I thought the till-now-unheralded J.B. made the strongest impression, thanks to an appealing hitch in his voice and an unexpected display of restraint he showed with the melody. This dialed-back approach was in stark contrast to the handsome teenager’s season 8 audition, in which I accused him of leaving ”no good note unpunished on what sounded vaguely like a cover of ‘Flying Without Wings’; I can’t confirm the title, though, since the song was taken by ambulance to the trauma ward immediately after J.B. finished pulverizing it.” Katie and Andrew, meanwhile, kept their records of pitch perfection in tact as they make what I’m assuming is an inevitable march toward the top 24. I’ll pause to toss out one caveat, though: As much as I dug Andrew’s ”Straight Up” cover from Tuesday night’s show, dude needs to be careful not to perform a full-stadium wave on every extended note he delivers. Sometimes, it’s nice to get the melody served straight, no melisma, y’know?

But of course, that’s just me getting into the niggling nuances of vocal performance — and who wants to do that when we could be discussing the dilation of Michael Lynche’s wife’s cervix? Okay, look, Big Mike seems like a sweet guy, and I felt for him that he had to make a choice between continuing his Idol journey or being at home for the birth of his baby girl. ”God’s got a plan, because this is too big to miss,” he mused. But seriously, I find it hard to believe that God was on board with Fox sending a camera to the delivery room, or Big Mike putting his laboring wife on speaker phone for all of America to hear. By the bye, this isn’t me being squeamish about child-birth or parenthood — quite the contrary. I’m just from that old-fashioned school of thought that maybe there are, oh, one or two moments in a person’s life so intimate and special that they maybe don’t belong on broadcast television.

NEXT: Mary Powers goes the diva route

Still, while I didn’t disagree with the judges’ decision to let Big Mike advance to the final day of Hollywood while cutting his fellow Team Awesome dad (an underwhelming Seth Rollins), I am utterly flummoxed by their continued support of Tim Urban, whose incredibly thick hair apparently impedes him from hitting every third note of his performances. (Why the producers didn’t use a violin-filled backstory to shed light on this terrible condiditon, I’ll never know.) And what’s the deal with the way Idol has spent the last four weeks teasing us with silent images of Michael Castro (brother of season 7 finalist Jason), only to pull the plug on the audio before he reached his solo on ”Get Ready”? Whether the dude was awesome, awful, or somewhere in the middle, I felt like as viewers, we deserved the courtesy of getting to hear for ourselves. But maybe there’s some executive at Fox or 19 (a fan of the uni-monikered Chikezie, perhaps?) who harbors some sort of irrational grudge against the entire Castro clan.

Sorry, I know it’s crazy to try to play pop psychologist. But it’s hard not to put on that hat after spending a whole hour watching contestants behave as though bawling, backstabbing, and bullying are the kind of behaviors Idol viewers are seeking to reward as they speed-dial their fingers to the bone.

Let’s take the case of Mary Powers. Admittedly, it can’t be easy when you’re working with someone like Margo May, whose attempts at ”harmonizing” sounded more like the shrilling brakes of a rapidly decelerating subway car. (I loved how Simon asked if someone could switch off the poor girl’s mic.) But hasn’t Mary ever watched Idol, or any other reality TV show in the history of ever? I mean, if you’re going to leave your young daughter at home and make a bid for music stardom, do you really want to kick things off by making diva-like demands of the show’s music director, Michael Orland? And if you’re envious because a rival team looks like they’re having a ball in rehearsals, do you really think that bursting into hysterical tears is the best way to up the fun quotient for your own group?

Worst of all, though, was watching Mary (whose hair deserved its own sob-story video package) and her group, the Dreamers, attempt to execute complex choreography on Fleetwood Mac’s ”Dreams” when everyone knows that if you want to make like Stevie Nicks, all you have to do is wrap yourself in a giant black shawl and twirl! Duh!

But a sudden 24-hour commitment to choreography is often a ridiculous by-product of group-performance day. Look at an act like overly cocky Destiny’s Wilde (Todrick Hall, Jareb Liewer, Siobahn Magnus, and a unimonikered diva whose name is spelled ”Theri,” but which Ryan Seacrest pronounced as ”Theory”). What good was that squat-and-clap shimmy when their final bit of harmony was about as welcome as a fist to the throat? Theri’s final note, in particular, was so bum it should’ve been cited for panhandling. If I’d been in Ellen’s hush puppies, I’d have sent the whole group packing — with the sole exception of Siobahn, whose raspy delivery in Cyndi Lauper video-extra wardrobe were moderately intriguing.

NEXT: Oh please (don’t) give us ‘Sweet Escape’

Neapolitan, the tattily attired archrival of ”Destiny’s” (I put that word in quotes, so as to not offend Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle), wasn’t a whole lot better. When Simon declared, ”in its own way, that was good,” I like to think he meant ”in its own way” in the broadest possible terms. As in, ”if we don’t define the quality of your vocals to any of the people who will actually be making the top 24, then that was good.”

For the night’s remaining highlights, let’s break it down fast and furious, much like the pacing of tonight’s telecast:

Phoenix: Really liked Jeff Goldford’s growly tone, but suspect he’s not finished paying for interrupting vocal coach Debra Byrd. Jermaine Sellers got mad love from his fellow contestants for ridiculously mauling his glory note on ”Wayward Son,” but the Romans used to cheer at the Colosseum, too, which didn’t make the barbarism any less horrific. As for poor Moorea Masa, while she was correctly schooled for dubbing her group-performance experience as ”a hardship,” at least this year, producers popped her name up on the screen. (Last year, when she was part of the Danny Gokey Experience, producers inexplicably failed to I.D. the girl!)

Faith: Not sure Charity Vance took Shania’s advice to hone in on the better parts of her voice between her audition and Hollywood week, because I’d have sent her home for that feathery assault on ”Irreplaceable.” Ashley Rodriguez, on the other hand, was actually pretty good. I wonder how their comrade Michelle Delamor felt tonight seeing how the average sneeze lasts longer than whittled-down footage of her solo.

Lee Dewyze: Funky snippet of ”Get Ready” (with Crystal Bowersox on backup!!!) has me thinking he’s an under-the-radar contestant to watch.

Mighty Rangers: Sorry, Mark Labriola, but you need to soak in the wisdom of Kara DioGuardi: ”We’ve all heard no more than yes.” (And, no, I wasn’t being facetious there. Srsly.) Also: Is it wrong that I cheered Danny Jones’ elimination on the sole basis of hating his hideous rehearsal headband? Or that I wanted Maddie Penrose to join him along with her ”look how quirky I am!” green glasses?

Tasha Layton: The producers may have suddenly decided to reduce the nighttime preacher’s season 9 journey down five-second snippets, but I’m gonna keep the flame burning by giving her a paragraph of her own.

Randy Jackson: Anyone remember anything significant the dawg said tonight? Fifteen ”save the rocker” points to the first person who can come up with a convincing example!

”The Sweet Escape” What in the name of all that’s holy would possess any contestant to choose this rapid-fire song to advance his or her Idol cause? I almost wonder if next year, Ken Warwick should add a booby-trapped song to the ”approved” list — say, ”I’ve Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates” or maybe ”My Humps” — and automatically DQ any singer who picks it.

What did you think of tonight’s show? How is this season comparing to last year? Do you have a favorite heading into next week’s Top 24 announcement?

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Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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