Though there were a few promising moments, the ''American Idol'' auditions in Seattle sometimes crossed the line into outright cruelty
American Idol, Sanjaya Malakar

”American Idol”: Stormy, with scattered sunshine

Back in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart secured himself a place in history (and quotation books everywhere) by explaining that he wasn’t sure if he could define obscenity but ”I know it when I see it.” Much to my surprise, the judge’s words popped into my head tonight as I was trying to determine the point at which American Idol auditions cross the line between amusingly mean-spirited and just plain cruel.

Okay, I promise: No more quoting old dudes for the rest of this TV Watch — except for Simon Cowell. But seriously, several moments from tonight’s two-hour highlight-lowlight reel of Seattle auditions failed to pass my personal squirm test, and I know that I’m not alone.

That’s because moments after watching 20-year-old Jonathan Jayne, with his soft features, high-waisted pants, and alarmingly orange Hawaiian shirt, wheeze his way through ”God Bless America,” I got a call from my friend Rosie in Alabama. ”Did American Idol just stoop to making fun of a mentally challenged person for laughs?” she asked. ”Y’know what,” I replied, ”I was just thinking the same thing.”

Now mind you, I’ve never met Jonathan Jayne. For all I know, the kid might have a 150 IQ and a master’s degree, but his few minutes of screen time tonight suggested that he is, at the very least, severely socially disabled (if not developmentally so). Making him an object of ridicule for 37 million viewers was the TV equivalent of pushing an obese, friendless second-grader into a mud puddle during recess. Not funny, just shameful.

And yes, getting indignant over Idol‘s mistreatment of Jonathan probably makes me a Pollyanna or a hypocrite, or perhaps a bit of both. But such is the conundrum of Idol‘s audition rounds. Why is it that one minute I’m guffawing at Simon’s response to Amy Salgado’s plea that a drink of water would improve her performance (”You could lie in a bath with your mouth open”) but then I’m spending an entire commercial break wondering how Nicholas Zitzmann’s coworkers could be so cruel (or clueless) as to encourage the awkward programmer to audition for the show? Even more perplexing, how come I’m laughing along with the judges at impish Kenneth Briggs’ mortifying choreography to ”Tearin’ Up My Heart,” and yet I feel fury rising within when Simon compares him to ”one of those creatures that live in the jungle with those huge eyes — a bush baby”?

I know it when I see it, I guess. But since I get paid to watch Idol and blather about it twice a week (I’m gonna stop playing MegaMillions because I really did hit the career jackpot), let me try to put it into words. If you’re an obnox who thinks you were born to be famous, despite a paucity of talent or intelligence (like Jennifer ”the Hotness” Chapton), then I will ridicule you as part of my dinnertime routine. If you’re a cocky Taylor Hicks impersonator who slurs your words and gets even Paula to declare ”there are troubled people here,” then I will sit on my couch and make you my punching bag. If you’re a horse’s ass who dresses like Uncle Sam so you can prove you’re neither special nor amusing for two Idol seasons running, then I support a congressional act to ban you from appearing on TV again for the rest of your days on this earth. I just like these episodes better when Idol‘s producers pick on egos their own size.

In fact, tonight I even got a kick out of watching a well-adjusted, lovable loser go down in flames. Melissa ”Carlene” Stavros, with that gray and pink outfit that looked as if it had risen from an auto accident involving a milkmaid, an office manager, and ’80s-era Madonna, even had the good humor to admit she ”sounded like a goat” thanks to a case of the nervous shakes while performing Christina Aguilera’s ”I Turn to You.” Girlfriend could teach many of Idol‘s foul-mouthed also-rans a few things about taking rejection in style, and she could teach the show’s producers that a good rejection is perhaps best served without a side of humiliation.

Likeable as Carlene was, however, she’s got nothing on Shyamali and Sanjaya Malakar, a pair of sweet, well-spoken siblings who each brought exactly the right combination of vocal talent and good humor. I’ve got my first major beef with Simon this season over his claim that there was ”nothing unique or different” about Shyamali’s easy, breezy take on ”Summertime.” That said, her retort — ”I’d be shocked if you jumped out of your chair” — made Simon’s misjudgment well worth it. And who’d have guessed that her little brother, 17-year-old Sanjaya, would one-up her by becoming the first contestant in recent audition history to choose a Stevie Wonder song (”Signed, Sealed, Delivered”) and not club it to death with blunt-force melisma? The supersize smile on that kid’s face when he found out he was headed to Hollywood was the kind of Idol moment that gives me the warm tinglies every Tuesday and Wednesday from January to May.

And the Malakars weren’t the only serious contenders unveiled tonight. Thomas Daniels was not only buttery good on Amos Lee’s ”Arms of a Woman”; he exuded the kind of quiet cool that’s needed to survive in Idol‘s later rounds. Meanwhile, if Paula’s awestruck reaction to Venezuelan-born Rudy Cardenas’ ”Open Arms” is any indicator, we may have caught our first glimpse of the season 6 version of Ace Young (only with stronger vocals). And while Simon was dead-on in his assessment that spiky-haired beat-boxer Blake Lewis may have brought a little too much confidence to his audition, the guy’s rendition of ”Crazy” was skillful enough that he’d probably have a hit with it if he released it to radio tomorrow. Any one of ’em might be a top-24 contender. I’m not sure I can say the same for 6-foot-4 Anna Kearns (a triumph of personality over tunefulness on ”Respect”) or precocious Jordin Sparks (who maybe should’ve waited a few years for her emotional maturity to catch up with her outsize voice), but even those ladies ought to be fun to watch during Hollywood week. Here’s hoping my ears (not to mention my conscience) can hold out.

What did you think of the Seattle auditions? Did tonight’s crueler moments go too far, or are battered contestants simply getting what they’re asking for? And did you see any true contenders among the seven Hollywood hopefuls shown during the episode?

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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