American Idol Recap: Golden Gateway

Police lights flash. Sirens blare. Medics rush toward the twisted wreckage of a totaled car. Firefighters sprint into a burning building. Colombian guerrillas wreak havoc in a small rural village. This…is American Idol? Yes, it is. Or rather, this…is American Idol…misguidedly dipping its toe into the reenactment business.

What the heck? Has Nigel Lythgoe been drawing inspiration from one too many Friday-night viewings of 48 Hours: Mystery (and its penchant for using low-rent stock footage to tell a tale)? Or is it merely the fact that, seven episodes in to the season 10 auditions, he’d try just about anything to freshen up a formula that’s dustier than a world without Swiffer? If it’s the latter case, here’s a hint: We don’t need to see random nighttime scenes suggesting a car accident to understand that Stefano Langone (pictured, top right) almost lost his life in a terrible crash. (Those shots of his post-surgery scars did the trick all on their own, thanks.) What we do need are some frakkin’ Chyrons for the three unidentified women who dazzled us using nothing but their voices, then were promptly whisked off our TV screens, one by one, leaving behind no names, no contact numbers, not even so much as a trio of glass slippers.

The first of the threesome, a green-eyed brunette in a tight white dress (pictured, bottom right), displayed a Monster Truck-sized voice — and the courage to switch up a familiar melody — on Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name,” prompting judge Jennifer Lopez to declare, “people are gonna pay to hear you sing.” (Yes, people definitely would, if people had any #%$*&%@ idea what name to type into Google.) The second, a blonde in a red shirt who looked like a younger hybrid of Felicity Huffman and Hope Davis, offered up a lovely, languid take on “Stormy Weather.” And the third (also with long brown hair) got out a grand total of four words of “Smile,” delivering them quite nicely. The funny thing is, by marginalizing these women in such an unprecedented way — to my memory, we’ve never before heard a Golden Ticket recipient singing without seeing his or her name appear on screen — Idol only makes them all that much more intriguing. Who the heck are these chicks? And what did they do to piss off Cecile Frot-Coutaz?

Yet if the old adage, “leave ’em wanting more,” applies here, what about the opposite end of the spectrum? Take James Durbin (pictured, top left), whose background package was one plague of locusts short of qualifying for not only a Golden Ticket, but also a surprise visit from terrifying Ty Pennington and the folks at Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. At the tender age of 21, poor James has already endured the following: A dad who died of a drug overdose when James was 9; a dual diagnosis from his doctors of Tourette’s and Asperger syndromes; years of bullying at school; a wife with a serious addiction to wallpapering their apartment with upbeat messages of inspiration; unemployment; inevitable comparisons to Adam Lambert; and a lack of money to buy even staples like diapers for his adorable baby. (Okay, yeah, also that haircut.)

Now here’s the thing: I feel for James and what he’s been through. But if his voice is the main meal — the steak and potatoes, if you will — how come Chef Nigel is serving it at the same exact time as his seven-layer cake of tragedy? What’s more, how come not one judge gave the unvarnished singer a little constructive criticism, warned him about his lack of vocal nuance, cautioned him against confusing yelling with emoting, told him to be careful of his pitch when he’s riffing on a melody? James is an easy guy to root for, and his cover of Muddy Waters’ “You Shook Me” proved he can certainly throw his entire heart into a performance, but his “Dream On” was kind of a mess. “I got the sense you sing from a really different place,” declared J.Lo., referencing James’ “need to feel and make others feel.” Yet while I suspect Idol‘s producers wanted us to get Adam Lambert 2.0 vibes off of James — they both auditioned in San Francisco! they both have a signature wail! — I suspect the season 10 wannabe will get swallowed whole by the Idol house band if he makes the live portion of the competition.

Funny enough, I was reminded of another Idol MVP — Fantasia Barrino — during Stefano Langone’s audition. Maybe it’s what Randy referred to as the little bit of “hood” in Stefano’s delivery, the way he hoyd (as opposed to heard) it through the grapevine, but the 21-year-old cutie with “movie-star good looks” and a piano belt buckle looks like one to watch, especially if he can continue to bring to the stage deep reserves of soul to go with his deep brown eyes and Maybelline-ad-worthy lashes.

And while we’re drawing parallels between San Francisco auditioners and former Idol finalists, I can’t be the only one who took one listen to Emily Anne Reed’s wispy instrument and immediately thought of Megan Joy (Corkrey), right? Like She Who Must Be Frequently Renamed (who auditioned to “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”), Emily chose an “old-timey” number, “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” and handled it like a delicate piece of origami. Perhaps more impressively, though, she managed to sneak a guitar into the audition room (despite Uncle Nigel’s anti-instrument stance at this stage of the competition) and showed some crazy skills while accompanying herself on “Honey Baby Blues.” Oh, wait! Did I forget to mention Emily’s house burned down a week prior to auditioning? And here you thought you were going to get through a paragraph of this recap without a mention of a sad, sad backstory.

Actually, if sentimentality is not your thing, then you probably liked Clint Jun Gamboa (pictured, lower left), who showed fantastic control tackling “Billionaire” while wearing a cardigan that reminded me of a black-and-white cookie. Given Idol‘s penchant for laying on the maudlin, It was nice to have an upbeat background package that merely looked at how one guy pays the bills while dreaming of bigger things. In my mind, Clint might be San Francisco’s sleeper contestant and outwit, outlast, and outsing some of his more heralded rivals (i.e. Colombian beauty Julie Zorrilla).

Note that we’re almost at the end of the recap and I haven’t mentioned Julie, who got a huge (and apparently rare) compliment from J.Lo about her sparkly gold shoes, and then after she’d left the audition room, got an even bigger boost from Jenny From the Block. “Winner?” J.Lo wondered aloud. “Maybe!” Er, or maybe not. There’s no doubt Julie has a lovely voice, but all her pointing and hair-flipping on “Summertime” was way too pageant-princess for my taste. And while I appreciate that Julie actually dressed to impress — that flared butterfly dress was divine! –I was definitely getting the impression that she had no doubt she’d be exiting that room with her Golden Ticket. Nope, nobody likes smug — or even a hint of it — on the Idol stage. Girl better wolf down some humbleberry pie before her next trip in front of a camera.

And finally, we had a second “trio of auditioners” reel in which Brittany Mazur’s solid if not spectacular cover of “Mercy” was decidedly more impressive than Lara Johnston or Matthew Ness.

What did you think of San Francisco? Did anyone notice that rejected auditioner David Johnston had a Westminster Kennel  Club “Best in Show” winner attached to his face? Was anyone else begrudgingly impressed by Transformer Guy’s costume? And, like me, did you think the “just because somebody farts, let em finish singing, okay?” bit was staged by a producer, and not an authentic confessional moment? Sound off below, and for all my reality coverage, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.

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