OK, let's cut to the chase. Wednesday's "American Idol" episode was two hours long, but all America will be talking about is the five minutes when early favorite Chris Medina, the nice guy with the brain-damaged fiancée whose sob story captured the hearts of millions, was axed in what Ryan Seacrest unhyperbolically described as the most emotional elimination in "Idol" history.
There were many spoilers out there on the Interweb days ago tipping viewers off to this shocker, but the shock didn't really set in until we all saw it on TV. America cried, I cried...and even ice queen Jennifer Lopez cried. "I don't want to do this anymore," she bemoaned. The hardened cynic in me wanted to believe that J.Lo's crocodile tears were fake, but it all just seemed too real, too sad.
But honestly, while my heart bleeds and tearducts leak for Chris, I am ultimately OK with this decision. It was becoming increasingly obvious as the season continued that Chris was coasting on his backstory; talent-wise, he was simply outshined during Hollywood Week, and there were too many other contenders who, based on their standout performances alone, deserved to go through instead. Chris's final performance of Coldplay's tearjerker "Fix You," a perfect and personal song for him, was actually his personal best--but at this late stage in the game, it just wasn't enough.
You know, if Chris had auditioned in Season 9, he probably would've been a shoo-in. Not only was it a less competitive season talent-wise, but it seemed like last year producers were actively looking for a strummy singer-songwriter like Chris (remember the proliferation of Lee DeWyzes, Andrew Garcias, and Tim Urbans that dominated the competition?). But after three consecutive nice-guy-with-guitar winners, Chris was no longer what the "Idol" powers-that-be wanted. If Chris had made it to the top 24 this year, he probably would have had a shot at winning the whole show due to his huge groundswell of sympathy and support...but then 19 Entertainment and Universal Records would've faced the difficulty of marketing yet another twentysomething male soft-rocker (note Lee DeWyze's lackluster sales). And hey, Universal's Jimmy Iovine (who made his first appearance on the show Wednesday, criticizing the contestants in a brutal manner previously unseen during this "kinder and gentler," Simon-less season) has a business to run. Jimmy needs to come out of this make-or-break season with a winner who can sell millions of records. And Chris just wasn't that guy. Not this year. It's not personal. And least Chris's fans donated more than $27,000 to help with his fiancée Juliana Ramos's medical expenses, so some good came out of his "Idol" run.
Anyway, I imagine the decision to commence the top 24 announcement Wednesday, not Thursday as originally planned, had everything to do with Chris's gut- and heart-wrenching elimination. Producers knew no one would be all jolly and jazzed for next week's top 24 live shows if they were still mourning the emotional ousting of a hapless nice guy with mounting medical bills, so the show couldn't end this week on such a sober note. So I expect Thursday's show will be much more lighthearted.
But speaking of lightheartedness, it wasn't all tears Wednesday. After all, the remaining 61 contestants bussed it to Vegas, where the always entertainingly nutty Ashley Sullivan, who lost her spot on "Idol" this week but gained a husband, tossed her long-suffering boyfriend David into a white limo and headed to the same chapel where her idol Britney Spears once married her husband of 57 hours, Jason Alexander. Seemingly oblivious to this being a bad omen, or to the fact that Ashley threatened to "kill him in his sleep" if he came down with a case of cold feet, David dutifully put on his rent-a-tux and made an honest woman out of Ashley. May they live happily ever after...or at least stay together longer than 57 hours.
The rest of the contestants were in Sin City to perform Beatles songs on the stage of Cirque du Soleil's "The Beatles' Love" revue, and sadly, many of them committed the major sin of Not. Knowing. Who. The. Beatles. Are. Now, that's just not Idol-worthy. I say, if you aren't familiar with the Beatles or have never heard a Beatles song, you should be automatically disqualified from "American Idol." Period. Or at least not admit it on national TV, or to diehard Beatles fan Steven Tyler. But thankfully there were some fab Fab Four performances this evening, including quirky soprano Rachel Zevita, this year's answer to Siobhan Magnus, looking awesomely goth as she warbled a moody, black-veiled "Eleanor Rigby"; Tim Halperin and Julie Zorrilla's stunning "Something" piano duet; the little-seen but amazing Paul McDonald and Kendra Chantelle's pleasingly understated and raspy "Blackbird"; and Carson Higgins and Caleb Hawley's ramshackle performance, which wasn't exactly note-perfect but had the seat-of-the-pants rawk 'n' roll attitude and all-out FUN that this show dearly needs.
But sadly, "American Idol" will have to go on without Carson 'n' Caleb, who were unjustly eliminated Wednesday. Also cut were 17-year-old fragile spirit Hollie Cavanagh (whom J.Lo actually wanted to keep, but she was outvoted); one of my faves, White House intern Molly DeWolf Swenson; a few footnotes who received very little screentime (Lakeisha Lewis, Alex Ryan, Deandre Brackensick); and aforementioned newlywed Ashley Sullivan, who took the rejection far more level-headedly than I would have ever expected from a woman so famously prone to meltdowns.
So who DID make it to the top 24? Here's who's officially in so far, listed in my order of personal preference:
Paul McDonald - His Nashville audition of "Maggie May" was only 15 seconds long, then he was never seen nor heard from again until this week. But 15 seconds was enough for me to seek out music by his band, the Grand Magnolias, and I was grandly impressed. I sincerely hope Paul's lack of screentime so far is the producers' way of priming him for a big wow-moment surprise, an out-of-nowhere top 24 tour de force. (His Wednesday performance, during which he played an original song and sported a Vegas-ready Nudie suit, indicated he's got the potential.) I hope this show isn't setting him up as cannon fodder, to be easily voted off to make way for more pimped contestants. Paul's better than that.
Clint Jun Gamboa - OK, so he was a little mean to 15-year-old fan favorite Jacee Badeaux during the Group Round, and that's no doubt going to hurt his chances (especially since the judges and Ryan keep bringing it up!). Even I still hold a little grudge against him for making Jacee cry. But Clint still earns bonus points from me for being associated with the so-awful-it's-awesome cult flick The Room, and the bottom line is, he's funny, he's interesting, and he can sing his butt off. After the unjust elimination of Season 10 class clown Carson, we need this wacky karaoke host in the running to keep things lively. And judging from the over-the-top, dropped-knee'd way he reacted to the judges' good news Wednesday, Clint is up for that task.
Naima Adedapo - I dig this chick's total vibe: the earth-mama image, the soulful voice, the made-for-TV backstory about how she does janitorial work for Milwaukee's Summerfest when she really ought to be playing the festival's main stage. She hasn't received much face time since her memorable first audition, but with her standout style, she won't remain ignored much longer.
Ashton Jones - Diva alert! It's been a while since we've seen the likes of Ashton on "Idol"--you'd have to go back to diva-heavy Season 6 with Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones, or even Season 3's Fantasia Barrino/Jennifer Hudson/LaToya London holy trinity. But as her Hollywood Week powerhouse performance of "And I Am Telling You" proved, this girl is ready for those sorts of big leagues. Here's one contestant who'll be able to tackle the Mariah/Celine/Whitney songbooks without embarrassment.
Haley Reinhart - Haley's most memorable moment so far, for better or worse, has been her bizarrely mumbled, growly Vegas performance of "The Long And Winding Road." She didn't win any points with me for ruining a perfectly good Beatles song. I expect her road on "Idol" won't be long or winding at all, but we'll see how she fares on the live show next week.
So five down, 19 to go. Who else will make it through to the top 24? And will J.Lo pull it together? We'll find out Thursday night. Have some Kleenex at the ready, just in case.