American Idol Recap: Numbers Games

One of the main mysteries of Lost centered around a set of inscrutable numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42), and now American Idol has its own enigmatic digits: 327, 168, 18, 5, and 0. Indeed, try as I might, I’m having a hard time making sense of the mathematical breakdown of tonight’s episode — which followed this season’s wannabe Carrie Underwoods and Kris Allens through the first round of Hollywood Week. Let’s review:

* 327: Golden Ticket recipients that Ryan said showed up for Hollywood Week (though our genial hostbot later told us Days One and Two featured 160 and 163 singers, respectively, for a total of 323 — #MathFail)
* 168: Contestants who we were told eventually advanced to Round Two of Hollywood
* 18: Successful folks who we actually got to hear singing before they advanced to Round Two
* 5: People who we actually got to hear singing before they were cut after Round One
* 0: New singers we hadn’t gotten to hear previously in the audition rounds

Call me a cynic, but when you look at those statistics, it’s hard not to conclude that our initial Hollywood Week outing was anything more than a coronation ceremony for Nigel Lythgoe & Co.’s pre-determined favorites. Which to some degree, I understand. You want people to take the Idol “journey” with you every Wednesday and Thursday from January to May, then you’d better make sure they’re forming strong musical and/or emotional connections with at least a few members of your cast. But on the other hand, you can’t feed microwaved leftovers to 23 million viewers who’ve come to the table expecting something to feast on something fresh and unexpected. And tonight’s hour-long telecast spent an inordinate amount of time reminding us of key players’ backstories, without allowing us the occasional joy of a new discovery.

In fact, at this point, I’m starting to fret that season 10 of Idol isn’t going to be so much a reality singing competition as it will be the lightly scripted story of seven or eight hand-picked vocalists overcoming heartbreaking personal adversity, zesty musical challenges, and a cast of barely fleshed-out supporting players. Can a non-pimped singer break through the blatant manipulation and capture the hearts of the viewing audience, the way Kris Allen did back in season 8? Not if he or she never gets a second of screen time!

Gack, okay, let me slip a Lunesta to my premature conspiracy theories and send ’em off to bed. Instead, I’ll quit my griping and take a critical look at the 18 successful singers we saw tonight, attempting to break them down into three groups: Pretenders, Contenders, and Folks Who Could Still Go Either Way. Ready to take the “journey” with me? Then without further ado…

Tiffany Rios (pictured, bottom left): Look, it was going to be darn near impossible for Idol‘s answer to Snooki to overcome a first impression (“Hi! I’ve pasted giant silver stars on my, um, bikini!”) that was only marginally less classy than Antonella Barba’s toilet photos. But tonight’s performance sealed Tiffany’s fate as nothing more than curbside litter on the long road to the Nokia. “I’m gonna be honest,” she squawked, her hair sparkling with that gets-everywhere brand of glitter that falls off Christmas cards and lingers in your living room till August. “I’m tired of seeing people try to do what I know I can.” And then, amazingly, she did manage to do something we’ve never seen on the Idol stage: Willing herself to simultaneously pass a gallstone and Etta James’ “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Impressive!

Jacqueline Dunford: If she hadn’t been conveniently presented with a crying-prone boyfriend package that, according to Idol rules and regulations, had to end with one of ’em advancing and one of ’em getting cut (more on that in a minute), there’s no way her flat, sexless “Bring It On Home to Me” would’ve gotten her through to the next round.

Thia Megia: I began to suspect it during the audition rounds, but tonight’s performance of “Summertime” convinced me: The 15-year-old cutie has a borderline unpleasant vocal tone, and her cadence is kinda off-putting, too. That said, I wasn’t mad at her modern-day Rainbow Brite attire.

James Durbin: Steven Tyler seemed delighted by the headband-wearin’, fauxhawk-sportin’ contestant who got a three-hanky backstory during the San Francisco audition episode. But honestly, his interpretation of the Beatles’ “Oh Darlin'” was like dumping a gallon of house paint on a canvas and calling it art. Where was the control, the restraint, the…anything that didn’t involve cranking the volume till the veins in his head and neck threatened to pop?

Chris Medina: As surely as none of us is about to forget the gut-wrenching story of how Chris’ fiancée suffered a devastating brain injury, I suspect none of us will remember his utterly pedestrian cover of Jason Mraz’s “You and I.” I’m going to say out loud what the judges are afraid to do: Chris just simply doesn’t appear to have a strong enough voice for this competition. (Also, minus ten points to whatever Idol staffer slipped in Coldplay’s “Fix You” at the end of Chris’ segment. Seriously, Idol? Seriously?)

Brett Loewenstern (pictured, top right): “Boy’s got the blues,” nodded J.Lo, as the red-headed teenager finished a searing, slowed-down rendition of “Let It Be.” I can close my eyes right now, and still hear Brett’s voice in my head. Plus, his enunciation is stellar — a rare but totally righteous quality in a modern-day singer.

Rachel Zevita (pictured, top left): There’s the Rachel that J.Lo remembered from her season 6 audition! Girl has a chipotle-infused tone: It’s a little bit smoky, a little bit spicy, and it sticks with you for a while once you’ve experienced it. Her spin on Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue” — Idol does love it some Duffy lately, no? — was actually an improvement on the original.

Casey Abrams: Did I miss it during the Austin auditions, or was last night the first time Idol identified Casey’s job as “works at film camp”? We need the dude to stick around simply so we can learn more about that awesome-sounding gig, but also because his “Lullaby of Birdland” was a jazzy delight, scoring a standing O from the competition. Anyone else hoping the Idol stylists can tame dude’s straight-from-the-hamper look without drowning him in a new one?

Lauren Alaina: Sure, even Ke$ha might sound okay in the aftermath of Miss Teen USA Stormi Henley, but Uncle Nigel’s pet contestant balanced glory notes and tender moments rather nicely in her version of “Unchained Melody.” I’m not 100 percent sold, but I can’t hold her “favored one” status against her if she starts living up to the hype.

Robbie Rosen: Yeah, I gagged a little when Ryan said Robbie was working toward the realization of a dream he’d had for 10 years, seeing as how Robbie is only 16. (Wait: We’re not all suddenly supposed to be seriously evaluating the “when I grow up, I want to be…” dreams of kindergarteners, right?) But that aside, the kid displayed a ridiculous range and plenty of power on “Moody’s Mood for Love” (even if it no Idol version can ever surpass the season 5 cover by Elliott Yamin).

Rob Bolin (pictured, bottom right): Heartbroken half of Nashville’s “ex-lovers-auditioning-together” segment once again showed off a gravely good tone and a real ability to bring a story to life on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” (Also, I cannot lie: I’m super-partial to that song, and you’ve got to give some credit for solid song choices, no?)

Chelsee Oaks: Rob’s former girlfriend also has a really potent voice that’ll fit right in at country radio, but I thought I heard her getting a little quavery toward the end of her number.

Hollie Cavanagh: As emotionally unraveled and pitch-challenged as she was in her Austin audition, the kid really pulled it together for her rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “When I Look at You,” which was clear and strong and mercifully unaffected. Still need to hear her give back-to-back solid efforts; plus, it’s hard to get 100 percent behind a singer who’s 2-for-3 in choosing ditties from the Hannah Montana star’s oeuvre.

Paris Tassin: Okay, she was bearing “the weight of the world” during her audition (Ryan’s words, not mine), and yeah, she’s got an undeniable set of pipes, but her choice of the Titanic love theme makes me channel my inner Nina Garcia and question her taste level. Plus, Paris went a little sharp on one of the song’s major glory notes.

Jacee Badeaux: Didn’t miss a note on “Bless the Broken Road,” but his decision to sing about a man’s long and winding journey before finally settling down with his soulmate struck me as emotionally tone deaf. Still, the judges banged their sponsored beverage cups in celebration of his performance.

Jackie Wilson, Scott McCreary, and Jerome Bell: Your humble recapper reserves the right to turn his side-eye on any contestant who chooses to repeat his or her audition number as the first song of Hollywood Week, no matter how well (or not) they handle said ditty. That is all.

They do it every damn year, but it doesn’t make it any less maddening when Idol cuts a promising Golden Ticket holder during Hollywood Week without letting us hear a single note from the singer’s mouth. This year’s recipient of the Deanna Brown Memorial Award goes to Sarah Sellers, so spotless on “To Make You Feel My Love” in her New Orleans audition, who was rendered mute tonight by Cecile Frot-Coutaz and her army of music-haters. Whenever something like this happens, I assume the contestant was cut for no good reason, that the producers made their decision based more on casting than talent. Yet if I’m wrong, why wouldn’t the show simply shave 10 seconds off the “Victoria Huggins Has 11 Suitcases” highlight reel, and show us where a chick like Sarah went wrong?

In other “Who Got Booted?” News…

I was mighty impressed by the post-elimination attitudes of Travis Orlando, Steve Beghun, and Stormi Henley. The pageant champ, in particular, spoke plainly and didn’t try to dig up any excuses for her ouster. “You have to have an incredible voice,” she reasoned. “There was nothing I could do.” Travis, too, behaved like a well-adjusted human being, not like a rejected character from Willy Wonka, promising to continue working on his singing, and perhaps to even audition for Idol again next year. (I thought the judges made the right choice for all three, as well as for the aforementioned Ms. Huggins.)

One person who didn’t handle his rejection so impressively, though, was Nick Fink. After being told he was headed home for a one-note nonsense rendition of “New Shoes,” while girlfriend Jacqueline Dunford advanced to the next round, Nick planted his feet at the edge of the stage like a 4-year-old refusing to acknowledge his bedtime. “I wish you guys would let me sing some more,” he whined, apparently blind to the “sudden death” clause of this round of the competition. It all got very “And you! And you! And you! You’re gonna love me!” as Nick paused again in the auditorium aisle to try to belt out the chorus. “No, nope” said Randy, as J.Lo’s glittery visage shimmered with a patina of implied-yet-not-actualized tears. Jacqueline, for her part, put some distance between herself and her floundering man.

Good times, people. And the promise of more drama on the way next week.

What did you think of Hell Week: Round One: Season 10? Did anyone else feel a little bad for perky Victoria as Idol‘s elaborate “you have a chance to win this thing” ruse came crashing down on her head? Is anyone else as disgusted about the Sarah Sellers situation as I am? (Hrmmm…maybe she should be on an upcoming episode of Idoloonies!)

Speaking of which, we won’t have a new episode of our humble Webcast for you this week, but we will be shooting again next Friday for an episode that will air Monday, Feb. 21. Until then, do follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV for all my Idol coverage!

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