Welcome back to American Idol's "biggest season yet." Well, at least that's what Ryan Seacrest called it tonight. And Ryan wouldn't lie, right? Right? But I have to say, so far it's just been American Idol's biggest disappointment yet. Season 8 has been just so-so, with the last few weeks' worth of auditions being the most underwhelming I can remember. That's why I'm so delighted that the auditions are at long last over and done with, and the contestants are now through to Hollywood, dawg.
Yes, Hollywood Week (expanded to encompass more episodes this season, yay) kicked off tonight, and I was hoping maybe now things would finally get interesting. At the very least, the much-hyped return of showstopper Norman Gentle and another Kara DioGuardi/Bikini Girl faceoff would surely be worth watching!
Speaking of faceoffs, things did get interesting right off the bat when the atrociously over-plastic-surgerized Barry Manilow returned to Idol as a mentor, pep-talking the contestants in full-on Tony Robbins mode as they sat in a hotel conference room like a bunch of timeshare-purchasing conventioneers. Then the contestants got straight to work. The format of day one of Hollywood Week went something like this: Groups of eight would all audition at once, passing the mic among themselves and taking turns singing whatever they wanted to a cappella. They'd only have one shot during this sudden-death round: After singing, they'd find out right then and there if they were cut, or if they were advancing to the next stage of the game. Rough. To rather loosely borrow a phrase from Heidi Klum, one moment they'd be in, the next moment they'd be out.
Now, I admit I've already taken a sneaky-peak at the widely web-circulated spoiler list of the top 36 who actually made it through...but for suspense's sake, I won't reveal my findings. Not yet, anyway. The list is easily accessible on VoteForTheWorst.com, for those of you who are the type that like to open their presents before Christmas (such as, um, me). So anyway, I'm just going to pretend that I don't know who made it through. Why spoil your fun?
So the first group to sing on the Kodak Theater stage tonight included Lil' Rounds and Dennis Brigham. Mizz Rounds belted out a Whitney ballad and, in my opinion, massively overdid it. It was a neck-vein-bulgingly OTT performance, and I even thought it was a little (dare I use this adjective, so early in the season?) pitchy in places. But apparently the judges didn't hear what I heard, because all of them, Kara in particular, were incredibly impressed. Kara even gave Lil' a one-woman standing ovation. They weren't quite as thrilled with Dennis Brigham; Simon Cowell told Dennis that he'd be hard to take seriously because of all his "weird faces." (I had to agree with Simon there; at times Dennis made some odd bug-eyed expressions that looked like he was doing a bad impression of Jim Carrey circa The Mask.)
Then, in true A Chorus Line fashion, the judges separated the contestants into two packs, telling some of the singers to step to the front and others to take a step back. Unsurprisingly, Lil' Rounds got through and Dennis "Y'all Suck As Judges" Brigham did not. I didn't need to look at any top 36 spoiler list to predict that outcome.
In the second group, emo-haired drama queen Nathaniel Marshall sang some song no one knew. This seemed to really rub the judges, especially Randy Jackson, about 10 different wrong ways. ("Song choice song choice song choice!" the judges later barked at the contestants). I thought Nathaniel sang the song just fine--whatever it was, I don't know or particularly care--but Nathaniel was forced on the spot to defend his obscure selection. He immediately broke down like the supersensitive soul that he is, blubbering onstage about how the inspirational mystery tune meant something to him and that music in general is, like, his LIFE: "It's on my skin, it just bursts out of me every time I'm onstage and I don't know why!"
Favorites "Anoop Dogg" and Jasmine Murray sang more well-known songs next and consequently easy-peasily pleased the judges, and then came one of my favorites, little dreadlocked orphan girl Rose Flack. Ah, lovably awkward, cheek-pinchingly adorable Rose. Rose, however, seemed to be having a tougher time of it than even poor Nathaniel. Her Hollywood Week audition was preceded by a montage of her bawling, whining, repeatedly doubting herself, and just basically freaking out. Uh-oh. But she pretty much pulled it together by the time she sang "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay" in front of the judges, sounded absolutely wonderful, and skirted through--along with Jason Castro's red-eyed little brother Michael Castro, whose actual audition was, for some reason, cut from tonight's episode. (I wonder why? Conspiracy theorists, share your thoughts on the message board below...)
Group three featured Maxwell-haired soulman Steve Fowler (not foul at all), crooner Jorge Nunez (eh), and off-the-charts-annoying Broadway blowhard Von Smith. Simon (quite correctly) described Von's eardrum-shredding performance (I'm talking the kind of histrionics that'd make Celine Dion look like Leonard Cohen) "indulgent nonsense" and "the sort of thing a child would do when learning to sing at age 10." So WHY the heck did Von (along with the more deserving Steve and semi-deserving Jorge) make it through to the next round, huh? I wasn't very happy about that, and I bet Simon wasn't either. Remind me to wear earplugs the next time this showoff sings on TV. Even with the mute button on, Von's voice would probably still shatter my windows. And my psyche.
Up next was...(drumroll, please)...Norman Gentle! Or Nick Marshall, whatever his name is. This shiny-shirted comedian claimed he was retiring his zany alter ego during Hollywood Week and getting all serious ("No more Norman," he promised, much to my chagrin). Boo! So I was thrilled when he instead showed up at the Kodak in his Night At The Roxbury-ish lizard-loungewear and unleashed his inner Norman once again, hamming it up to the max on the Dreamgirls epic "And I Am Telling You."
And I am telling you, it was super-awesome.
"I'm staying, I'm staying, and you, please you, yes you, you're gonna love me!" Norman vamped like a world-class Ethel Merman impersonator. He was a-ma-zing; even the highly entertained, hyena-laughing contestants watching in the Kodak seats gave him a standing ovation. Even without checking my aforementioned spoiler list, I knew Nick/Norman had no chance of making it to the top 36 (and I'm sure he was astonished he even made it this far), but I imagined that reality television producers watching his wacky performance were already writing up network proposals to give this wackjob his own syndicated show.
But those producers, incredibly, will have to wait a bit longer to get any such program into production...because guess what? Yep, somehow, Norman made it through. I do not know HOW this happened. And I frankly do not care. Norman was staying! And I was gonna love him, for as long as he managed to stick around.
A few less surprising people to make it through included Amy Winehouse wannabe Frankie Jordan, blind guy Scott MacIntyre (at least Ryan Seacrest didn't try to high-five Scott this time), and "28 years young" rawker chick Jackie Tohn (who actually sounded and looked a little long-in-the-tooth to me). I'm still not the biggest fan of Jackie, whose glass-gargling vocals seemed a little contrived and "Amanda Overmyer 2.0" to me...but I was a fan of that tiger shirt and sequined fannypack she was rocking tonight, that's for sure. I hope the stylists on Idol don't make her change up her image. Fannypacks were awesome on America's Best Dance Crew, and they're awesome on AmIdol!
Best buddies Danny (the young widower) and Jamar (his support system) both made it through next, and then...it was time...for...The Return Of Bikini Girl (aka Katrina Darrell). Of course, she was virtually unrecognizable from her audition earlier this season, since she'd actually bothered to put on clothes for Hollywood Week (much to Simon's dismay, I am sure). "I'm the next American Idol because I am," she told the judges at the Kodak. Such infallible logic there. Wow, beauty AND brains? Katrina's the complete package! Except, of course, she can't sing. Her rendition of Faith Hill's "Breathe" started off a'ight but quickly devolved into nails-on-chalkboard nasality...and without the distraction of her, um, other assets (which were now hidden behind a surprisingly sack-like dress), Katrina's vocal shortcomings were readily apparent. As were her personality shortcomings: She was obnoxious, whiny, and rude to Kara once again. But for some reason, even fully clothed she managed to charm Simon, who was sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice to Katrina in way I don't think I've ever witnessed in all eight seasons. He vehemently defended Bikini Girl to Kara, and--ugh!--Katrina got through again. Hmmm. This almost makes me wonder if there is some sort of Corey Clark-style situation going on between Simon and Katrina. If so, didn't Simon learn from Paula Abdul's alleged mistake?
The two dads, Jesus Valenzuela (the semi-talented one who dragged his cute kids into the audition room to earn sympathy votes) and Michael Sarver (the roughneck) auditioned next. Neither blew my mind, but Michael was the slightly better of the two and he advanced, while Jesus was sent packing. Jesus then threw a hissyfit, not exactly setting the best example for his little ones watching at home.
And finally, singing last was one of my favorites, estranged Go Betty Go lead singer Emily Wynne Hughes, this season's token pink-haired rock chick. Apparently her "controversial" decision to switch her audition song at the last minute to No Doubt's "Excuse Me Mister" was a big misfire in the judges' eyes (or ears), but I for the life of me could not figure out why. The song suited Emily perfectly. It was in her genre (i.e., the type of music she'd be likely to record if she landed a label contract); her pink hair almost exactly matched the shade Gwen Stefani rocked back in No Doubt's Return Of Saturn era; and the bottom line is, Emily sang the tune well. I think the show was just trying to build up some false suspense here, because Emily eventually made it through, after all that drama--along with that Osmond dude, who wasn't shown singing, and my hands-down fave this season, Adam Lambert. (WHY didn't they show Adam sing either???) Then some sore loser named Erica didn't make it, begged the judges to reconsider their decision in a depserately rambing monologue that was almost too painful to watch (seriously, it was pathetic), and then it was all over.
Until tomorrow, that is...when the show returns for what Ryan Seacrest dubbed "Infamous Group Day." Ooooh, I cannot WAIT to see which poor singers have to share the stage with Norman Gentle or Von Smith. Those scenery-chewers will upstage anyone who gets within 100 feet of them!
This oughta be good...