American Idol Recap: Milwaukee's Best!

Tonight’s episode of American Idol — straight from the cheesehead state of Wisconsin (city of Milwaukee, to be specific) — played out like a light and breezy Jennifer Lopez rom-com with 15 minutes of harrowing emotional drama (think Requiem for a Dream or Precious or Winter’s Bone) grafted on at the end.

Yeah, okay, as Michael Stipe (and yes, reality TV scholars/Idoloonies, Lee DeWyze) would have us believe, everybody hurts. But not all pain is equal, as we learned from meeting 26-year-old Chris Medina, a curly-haired fella whose fiancee, Juliana, suffered a traumatic brain injury and was confined to a wheelchair just months before their wedding date, and Emma Henry, 15, (along with her hair, 47), who wept openly at the prospect of being withheld from her destiny of becoming the female answer to Justin Bieber.

Oh, Emma, this is exactly why Idol shouldn’t have lowered its minimum age limit to 15 this year, but instead raised it to 18. (And this is why I give a slow clap to J.Lo for being the only judge brave enough to give you the gift of “No.”) You see, Emma, life is hard. Sometimes it’s downright brutal. And while your “True Colors” had a sandpapery beauty to it, until your understanding of the human experience expands beyond what you picked up in the latest copy of Weekly Reader, until you realize that the world doesn’t owe it to you to redeem coupons containing the words “but I really want this to happen,” you should not attempt to become a recording artist, a reality TV star, or anything other than the child you currently are. You want something to cry about? Chris Medina (pictured, top left) can give you something to cry about.

Because whether or not you appreciate how Chris’ back story was handled — I’ll admit I have mixed emotions, and I’m sure you’ll be sharing your own opinion in the comments below — it was impossible to not be moved by it. This is a man living out the most painful possible twist on “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” a man who refuses to walk away from a love that may have to sustain itself on memories alone.

What’s haunting to me is the way Idol‘s producers kept hidden the full extent of Juliana’s injuries. That the beautiful young woman suffered severe physical effects from her 2009 accident was clear from one glance: The larger question, of course, involves her mental state. How aware is Juliana of her surroundings? Did she knowingly consent to the Idol cameras capturing her in this fragile state? I’m temped to guess “yes,” but it could just be the optimist in me wanting to believe Juliana was knowingly waving Chris’ Golden Ticket in the air as they exited the audition room, that she did indeed whisper to him that she knew he’d get that trip to Hollywood.

In any event, thank heavens for Steven Tyler, whose genuine warmth — leaning into Juliana’s ear and telling her “that’s why he sings so good, ’cause he sings to you” — came right through my TV screen and neutralized the creepy way the judges had been pumping Chris for information just moments before. Idol‘s bottom-line message may be that the cost of possible dream fulfillment is making your private pain a very public one, of not just telling the world that your fiancee is confined to a wheelchair but making sure the cameras let the viewing audience see it for themselves, but Mr. Tyler made the moment about pure human connection. Well played, sir!

But enough about Chris’ back story. An audition should be rated on vocals, and I’d give the guy a solid B/B+ for his cover of The Script’s “Break Even.” I appreciated Chris tackling a number with a little bit of rhythm, and J.Lo was spot-on in offering up a silent-but-enthusiastic clap for the guy’s lilting falsetto. The problem is that now, after a few hours have passed, I remember the details of Chris’ tragic past far more than I do his actual voice, and that lack of distinctiveness could well plague him the rest of the season.

Chris and Emma (and her Amanda Overmyer hair) weren’t the only study in opposites tonight.

NEXT: Grown-ass women FTW!