Show Tracker: 'American Idol'

Exhaustion sets in
Thu., Mar. 29

This is where the race should start to get truly interesting as those who are not dying to win to the core of their souls start to make terrible mistakes and fall away.

So far, front-runner Melinda Doolittle has not made a single misstep this entire season. Can that last?

That question aside, the shape of the race is clear enough shape that I am prepared to pick the winners. Despite the fact that a month ago I said with certainty that it was a Melinda-versus-LaKisha race, I can now say with absolute certainty the final three will be:

No. 1: Melinda Doolittle

No. 2: Blake Lewis

No. 3: Jordin Sparks

And this prediction will absolutely hold up. Unless something changes and it doesn't.

Other observations from the taping of the show Wednesday night:

• I swear I'm not imagining things. The other contestants are very barely tolerating Sanjaya. He sits in another world on stage.

• These biggest impression one gets watching from the Idoldome is that these kids are very, very tired.

Both Phil Stacey and Chris Sligh referred to exhaustion in their pre-song mini-interviews Tuesday night. Sligh — who got the boot Wednesday night — went so far as to say his health was in jeopardy.

In their interactions with the crowd and each other, all 10 seemed to have surpassed being nervous. Standing before the judges just a week ago, a grin or grimace from Simon sent most of these contestants whirling off on an emotional roller-coaster rides. This week, most struggled to muster more than weary nods or vague half-smiles. Haley — who earlier would have been pushed close to breaking by negative comments — took her pain in stride, while Phil Stacey seemed to be going through the motions, miming devil-horns excitement. Only Gina seemed genuinely touched after getting the thumbs up.

In a conversation last week with one of the remaining contestants — I won't reveal whom — I was told that during a night of particularly harrowing results they were numb to the outcome, drained at the end of a hard week of rehearsals, photo shoots and Ford commercials.

I am reminded, of course, of the experience of the Apollo astronauts who stepped on the moon. Having completed a journey few could imagine, the moon walkers have spent their lives since answering the question, over and over, "What was it like?" In his book "Moondust," author Andrew Smith reported the frustration the 12 lunar visitors experienced trying to articulate those fleeting hours, subsequently turning variously to painting, New Age religion, workaholism and silence.

Because the truth is, as Smith writes, they were almost all too busy up there to stop and notice what it was like.

NASA loaded up each Apollo mission with so many experiments and rock-collecting chores that they spent their entire visits racing around, barely pausing until they were on the way back home again.

My point being, for these people — down to nine from tens of thousands — this moment will pass very quickly; they owe it to future historians to pause and take in the experience that few mortals will ever achieve. Perhaps "Idol" needs to include a space of time when contestants can truly live rock-star lives — throwing groupie orgies and developing seven-figure drug habits just for a week — to give these brave souls a chance to take it all in.

--Richard Rushfield

A Sanjaya Reverie
Wed., Mar. 28

Tuesday night’s “American Idol” raises so many issues, it is hard to know where to begin, so let’s tackle them from largest to smallest.

To begin, the grinning, rolling on the floor elephant in the arena — the Sanjaya problem — threatens to tear “Idol” nation asunder. There have been joke contestants who live unnaturally long life spans before (Kevin Covais, Scott Savol) but never have they been so openly contemptuous of the show as Sanjaya Malakar. Watching live from the Idoldome, one can see Sanjaya has clearly morphed from establishing a passive aggressive juvenile distance from the competition to the point where he seems to be giving the whole thing the finger.

Surely Sanjaya is aware of the controversy he is causing, of the counter-Idol movements (, Howard Stern, etc.) that are promoting him. Has he taken up their banner as “Idol”’s anti-hero? If so, this introduces a toxic element which has never been unleashed on the Idol stage.

Another factor to consider — if it is true that, as one contestant said last week, that Blake, the Chrises and Phil Stacey are all roommates, this means that in the guys’ dorm, the surviving gentlemen contestants are all in one room together — except Sanjaya, who then would be in a room by himself.

If this is the case, also consider Sanjaya presumably would’ve come to inhabit this suite after the decapitations of his roommates. So we can visualize the specter of Sanjaya, after watching his roommates be killed off one by one, sitting along in his cavernous, cold, bare dorm room while the cool kids party down the hall, surfing the web and seeing how one girl is starving herself demanding he be kicked off while at the same time he has become a hero to a generation of Idol haters. . . . you don’t need to be a Carl Jung, just someone who reads enough comic books, to know that this is how super-villains are born.

Of course, as the secrets of Idoldorm remain more tightly guarded than the cells of Guantanamo, all this is pure speculation. . . . But until we get real answers, the how and why of that hair style, speculate we all must. It is our duty as the “Idol” electorate and citizenry.

Second, Gwen Stefani was the biggest twit of a mentor ”American Idol” has ever seen. Could she give one single compliment without couching it in “If he can only... ”? Poor Chris Sligh having to endure the “He was definitely off” review from the woman brought in to help him. These kids today could learn a thing or two about celebrity mentoring. Bring back Barry Manilow.

Finally, let’s condemn in the strongest possible terms the reduction of “Idol”-horsepower to a mere hour a night. To think: Just several weeks ago we had five hours a week of “Idol” viewing, and now we are down to a meager, paltry ninety minutes. Are they trying to wean us off the show? The Idol producers ought to remember their debt to their obsessive compulsive core fan base and feed us adequately.

--Richard Rushfield

High Stakes Summer Camp
Thurs., Mar. 22

Unknown perhaps to viewers but heavy on the minds of "American Idol" contestants were the especially high stakes involved in this week's elimination — that, for whatever reason, only the final 10 contestants, not 12, get to go on the traditional postseason tour. So, for those who survived this week — Sanjaya Malakar made the cut, Stephanie Edwards did not — the party is guaranteed to continue through the summer at least.

Despite the fact that the "Idol" contestants and their friends and family have had the fear of God put into them about the dangers (and Fox restrictions) of speaking to the media, the impression that genuinely comes through, more or less, is that the producers have succeeded this season in actually creating that summer-camp atmosphere the show endeavors to portray.

First of all, it must be said just how young this year's finalists seem — individually, up close, they look like actual teenagers, or very near to it. Collectively, they resemble a bunch of college undergrads. They seem far, far younger than the casts of the previous two seasons, which were dominated by strong personalities such as Bo Bice and Katharine McPhee who strove toward various kinds of adulthood, not to mention Taylor Hicks, who actually looked decades past his actual years. What seemed a lack of gravitas early in this season now comes across as youthfulness.

The friendship between the cast members is constantly on display on stage, as they practically walk around in a giant group hug. The Chrises (Sligh and Richardson), Phil Stacey and Blake Lewis seem to form the core of the group. Family and friends tell of how close they've all become, of how the group goes to dinner together every night. Unthinkably, in the midst of all this, two of them sneaked out to bowl after the performance show Tuesday.

Away from the cameras after Wednesday's show, the contestants rushed to crowd around the window of singer Lulu's car to say goodbye, like bidding farewell to a favorite counselor, before heading to dinner. The whirlwind does have a way perhaps of binding everyone together and making them forget that only one can win. One contestant said that while he was in terror during the elimination shows, he just feels numb now, weary from the blur of the week.

And the summer-camp atmosphere is clearly hard to let go of, even after you've taken your lonely walk off the plank. Sitting in the audience last night were eliminees Leslie Hunt, for the second night in a row Alaina Alexander and, a mere one week to the day after he was sent home, Brandon Rogers. Not to mention Justin Guarini. Each studio audience seems to have an entire exes section. Moving on is a challenge, whether the wound is fresh or half a decade old.

In the studio, it truly seemed the best of times as the room swayed to Peter Noone's "There's a Kind of Hush," which sounded much fresher in person than it did on television. The contestants danced with one another to their mentor's song, forgetting for a moment all the stresses of the last week.

And then in mid-song, from stage right, Ryan Seacrest, the angel of death himself, silently shimmied over and took his position in front of the sofa, cards in hand. The party has a price, and the piper will be paid.

--Richard Rushfield

Who's That Girl?
Wed., Mar. 21

First things first: Who was the crying girl? After the show, I chatted with Idol’s newest superstar, the crying girl, Ashley Ferl, aged 13, from Riverside. For some long minutes after the show, Ashley remained in a state of inconsolable sobbing, unable to choke out a single word. However, through an interpreter (her mother) we were eventually able to learn some facts about the young superstar.

The family, I was told, obtained tickets on a website to attend a taping of “Smarter Than a 5th Grader” a day passage that included not just the taping of the show itself, but also the dress rehearsal of either “Grader” or “Idol.” The fates were kind, and the mother and daughter found their way to the “Idol” rehearsal, where Ashley’s waterworks began. Her prowess was quickly brought to the attention of “Idol” producers who summoned the clan to a ringside seat of honor at the final taping.

Her powers of speech slowly returning, Ashley revealed that while she was on stage she had been thinking that “this was the coolest thing ever.” Asked whom she was supporting in the competition she named “Sanjaya, Melinda, Gina and Jordin” as her picks, refusing to narrow her vote down to a single choice. All my journalistic powers of persuasion, cajoling, bullying and insistence that on her vote might turn the entire competition, that “Listen to reason, young Ferl, there can’t be four American Idols,” would not convince her to name a single favorite. To my every argument, she would only repeat her mantra, “All Four: Sanjaya, Melinda, Gina and Jordin.” And so the race begins in earnest, with tears at every step of the way.

Back to the show: last night, there was an awkward run-up in the Idoldome. Last week’s warm up act, Corey, was absent. The hyper-peppy warm-up dance caller whose chants of “SHAKE! THAT! BOOTY!” make Ryan Seacrest seem a laconic sophisticate in comparison, was replaced by the ironic, subdued Billy, who’s anti-fanny pack material tread on dangerous ground with the studio audience.

More potentially cringe-inducing was the quiet, almost unnoticed entry of ousted contestant Alaina Alexander who wandered in to watch the show as mere spectator. The obvious but too-cruel-to-ask question (how awful is it to be sitting here just watching?) hung in the air above her as she sat, all but unrecognized. Finally, mercifully, her quiet vigil broke as a young girl recognized Alaina and approached. As Alaina signed an autograph, the girl broke into spasms of hysterical, out-of-control sobs of joy (insert major foreshadowing alert theme music). For Alaina Alexander the ride is not completely over.

The Show:

You have to be something of a sociopath to win “American Idol”; the ability to take and absorb criticism without being affected by it, to exude “fun” while delivering highly controlled, rehearsed performances, to supposedly not care about winning while caring deeply about each performance - these are not skills learned by the average person.

It also is an open question whether it is better to be a “normal person”, as Melinda Doolittle seems to all indication to be, or to act like a normal person, at which last year’s champion was very skilled. And can someone who doesn’t even try to be a “normal person”, like LaKisha, who’s diva-ness grows with each episode, stand a chance on a show which is, as much as Simon may insist otherwise, much more than just a singing competition.The judging is the lynchpin of each show; and as the moment of each contestant’s greatest vulnerability, it is also when they reveal the most about themselves. Drawing on my years of experience as an unlicensed clinical therapist, I made a study of the contestants’ various reactions to this critical moment of criticism.

Here are my findings based on Tuesday’s show:

+ Hayley. Grows more confident every week, but still very susceptible to the judges’ every word.

+ Chris Richardson. Very subdued. Enjoyed the reaction, but seemed confident enough with his performance to enjoy the praise but not to need it.

+ Stephanie. Feels every word the judges say. Struggles to pull back to the gracious manner that she prides herself on.

+ Blake. Completely results-oriented. The inner wheels are exposed as he adds up where he falls on the positive/negative scale. Listens to their words just for their value, but doesn’t absorb their meaning.

+ LaKisha. Does not care one damn bit what these fools think.

+ Phil. A good soldier, listens respectfully. But his good humored, normal-guy persona crumbles when given the criticism; he becomes defensive and stumbles, trying to reassert the “fun guy.”

+ Jordin. Constantly giddy and giggly. Too much energy and good spirits to stay serious very long.

+ Sanjaya. As noted last week, squirms through the judging, bored and uninterested like he wants to go out and play.

+ Gina. Was her most nervous this week. Visibly shrank in stature before her lukewarm notices.

+ Chris Sligh. Gets very very serious when being judged, belying his earlier wiseacre persona.

+ Melinda. Lights up completely when praised, totally awed by being well received.There is an interesting distinction between how Melinda and LaKisha end their songs. LaKisha steps away like she is shrugging out of a boxing ring, leaving her opponent a rotting vegetable behind her. Melinda, on the other hand, commands the room with such seeming ease but then, as soon as the song ends, seems almost embarrassed by what she’s accomplished.

But there is a masochism in the human species that somehow makes us enjoy having our deepest flaws exposed and ridiculed. At least if you are Alaina Alexander. No contestant has ever been judged more harshly than she, but there she was at the breaks, racing forward to chat with Simon and Randy, dying to catch up on old times.

--Richard Rushfield

What happens during their 'Idol' time?
Thur., Mar. 15

Watching Wednesday night's elimination show live in the Idoldome, one of the most instantly apparent things was the true camaraderie between the members of the extended "Idol" family. I've been to plenty of TV tapings in my time, and tons where the moment the camera stops rolling, the smiles vanish and the stars retreat to separate corners. That is not what happens here, at all. At breaks, the judges act like they are at recess, joshing around with each other and producer Nigel Lythgoe. They joke with their many friends who have come to see the show. Even Ryan Seacrest comes off the stage and lolls on the judging table, laughing with his sparring partner Simon. More touching perhaps is the seeming affection between the contestants (most of them), who during breaks, lean on each other, joke, whisper, wrap arms, dance together and generally behave like a college spirit team out on a weekend road trip. The bond between them is unmistakable. And then one of them must die.

It is a beautifully brutal and poignant process each week -- as this little family, each plucked from obscurity and cast together onto the world stage, draws naturally closer -- their shared experience taking them that much farther together. But at the price that each week, they must sacrifice one of their own. A fuller metaphor for the paradox of man's experience as a social but mortal creature I cannot think of.

In the studio, the extremes of the paradox seem, if anything, starker. Notable Wednesday was the awkward division suddenly carved onto the double-tiered couch, as by the end of the first segment all but Brandon, Phil, Sanjaya and Hayley knew they were safe. Some, in particular Chris Sligh and Stephanie Edwards, started the evening looking extrememly nervous and uncomfortable on stage; even during the breaks remaining very stiff. After they received their week's pass, they became giddy and playful once again, gigantic smiles lighting their faces.

During the Diana Ross segments and commercial breaks there was a heightened sense of playtime and horsing around among the survivors, combined with hugs and reassurances to those who hung in the balance. To an observer from 70 feet away, Melinda seems to play a big sister role, doing a lot of hugging and reassuring. Blake and Gina seem the most extroverted of the group -- constantly on their feet dancing and gabbing, a bigness of personality that may work for them or against them as the competition progresses. LaKisha, for her part, seemed to hold herself back ten degrees from the gang -- not quite aloof but clearly not one of the kids either. (Does this augur well or poorly for her in the long run? Rumor has it that being one of the gang has not always been a priority to some "Idol" finalists.)

However, perhaps the cruelest fate of all belonged to Haley Scarnato who had to sit in her upper corner of the couch, while for 15 minutes the others celebrated and worse still, right next to her, fellow torturee Sanjaya talked her ear off with a string of grinning banter that seemed to wear badly on her understandably decaying nerves. It was a telling moment when Hayley learned she was safe: She burst in emotion but forgot the requisite hug to Sanjaya, and he shuffled off to the bottom three.

We see the character of a person by how they handle moments like these, and it must be said, when my day comes I hope I can stand up with the dignity and aplomb of Brandon Rogers. Never for a moment, during the breaks or otherwise, did he let a shadow of bitterness or remorse darken his smile. The audience, thrilled to be present in the Idoldome, seemed shocked to witness his execution and the standing ovation they gave his goodbye song -- which, alas, didn’t make it to the air -- was long and sustained.

After the cameras shut down, the contestants embraced their lost comrade in a final hug -- although for those who had survived this first test this time there was more giddiness than tears. Then, surprising to see, the judges came to the stage and each wished Brandon well. In particular, Simon lingered and chatted with him for a respectable number of minutes. Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not so… One singer may have fallen but there is still a champion waiting to rise.

--Richard Rushfield

The Dawn of the Big Stage
Wed., Mar. 14

To the extent that a phenomenon as rich and complex as "American Idol" can be boiled down to a simple metaphor, the show's appeal can only be compared to gladiatorial combat. Each week, every contestant's entire life boils down to 90 seconds in which—alone on a hostile stage—they either soar or implode. Then at the conclusion of each song, their fate is handed to them and neither all their piety nor all their tears can take it back again.

Watching on television, those moments can seem unbelievably strained and painful. Watching them live in the "Idol" studio, I discovered, the tension is much, much worse. Almost too real, if you will.

On Tuesday night, I was honored to bear witness in the Idoldome at CBS' Television City studios -- to sit before the stage where Clarkson and Aiken, Daughtry and Underwood had begun their public lives. And my major impression was of what a cold place that stage was for these contestants, so small and so vulnerable in the flesh.

While the Big Stage is actually not that huge (as is always the case, smaller than it appears on television; the audience area, seating about 300 seems about as large as a medium-ish Junior High School auditorium), but it is incredibly full and busy. Giant rotating neon columns flank the stage, a video screen circled by Martian antennas looms behind, spotlights everywhere, fog machines, a 20-some piece band blaring and seated just five feet away -- three judges gazing on blank and pitiless as the sun (and chatting through a shocking amount of the performances).

Standing alone on this stage, those contestants who "don't have it," as Simon Cowell put it, are swallowed whole by the apparatus. While the band gets the crowd on its feet and dancing, middling vocals drown underneath the giant effect, as was the case in Brandon Rogers' and Chris Sligh's performances. Also worth noting that while the crowd does play the good sport and get up and dance when called to, standing o's are by no means de rigeur , and all ovations are certainly not made equal, even here.

The camera also plays capricious games, handing out its favors indiscriminately. Haley Scarnato's and Phil Stacey's performances seemed much weaker on TV than they had in person; Blake Lewis and Chris Richardson seemed stronger. Melinda's proportions which are unremarkable in person, seem truncated on television; Chris Richardson's features deeper, less callow than in the flesh.

On television the spectacle of watching the inadequate contestants ripped to shreds provides the satisfaction of meritocratic justice unflinchingly administered. In person, the pain these very young people endure as they absorb their fate is truly visceral -- from a hundred feet away, one could feel Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis go cold, and it was much harder not to pity them. Haley Scarnato's breakdown was so intense it was a bit embarrassing to be in the room with her.

On the other hand, one could sense more clearly Sanjaya Malakar's complete indifference to the judges' opinions as he shifted back and forth on his feet, like a schoolboy enduring a teacher's lecture about playground safety before he's allowed to go out for recess.

But for raw entertainment and excitement, there is little to match the thrill of the crowd awaiting their pop gladiators. From the pre-show entry of the judges like prize fighters striding through the crowd to the strains of "Got to be Real" to the expectation hanging on each contestants performance, the audience hangs at a fever-pitch throughout the three-plus hours they sit in the studio. And every single person present (and no doubt most of the viewers) arrive with formed relationships (for better or worse) with and opinions about each of twelve contestants? In the risers, debate on the great topics of our day raged -- Melinda vs. LaKisha, which, if any, of the boys could break out of the pack. And was Haley Scarnato's dress too revealing?

My personal focus group, the extremely wise Kiki Hertel, aged nine from Fort Worth, Texas, arrived for the show bearing two signs -- for Melinda Doolittle and Gina Glocksen. She also confided that Blake Lewis is a major favorite in her class, an opinion shared by several others of the pre-teen set in the risers. Sanjaya's charisma, however, was completely lost on her. By the end of the night, however, it seemed Gina Glocksen had not done much to help her dark-horse standing with Kiki, and LaKisha had entered her top tier. "She has a really powerful voice," Kiki confided.

The season has begun in earnest now. From here on in, history rides on every step.

--Richard Rushfield

The 12 Emerge
Thurs, Mar. 9

There were no tears for the fallen this time. On the third floor of the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood on Thursday night, a crowd of several hundred partygoers gathered to hail the 12 "American Idol" finalists chosen from the pitchy masses.

TV screens around the room broadcast Thursday's results show, taped three hours earlier for the East Coast. But most attendees seemed to have heard the news already — that the once mighty Head had fallen. Yes, Sundance Head did not make it to the Top 12, but the atonal and whispering Sanjaya Malakar did.

But few even glanced toward the screens to watch Sundance's final moments, or to hear if the Internet soft-core sensation Antonella Barba could find dignity in her goodbye song, or to drink in the sounds of Sabrina Sloan. Prematurely though their journeys may have ended (in Sabrina's case, if not so much in Antonella's and Jared Cotter's), history is written by the victors, and contestants 13 through 24 have now been relegated to footnote status.

On the televisions, contestants sat waiting to hear which of them would be heading home, but at the Top 12 party, everything was Coke floats and hot fudge sundaes. All eyes remained on the red carpet outside, waiting for the finalists to appear. And when they did step on the carpet, making their way in pairs along the line of assembled reporters — something magical happened: Individually and collectively, they had been transformed into stars. As they worked the press line, mugging for cameras, fielding the question "What's your strategy?" over and over, the likes of Gina Glocksen, Brandon Rogers, Chris Richardson and Melinda Doolittle filled the shoes of the Top 12s who had walked before them with ease and grace.

With mikes in their faces, flashbulbs popping all around and the long journey of regional auditions, Hollywood week and the semifinals behind them, the 12 — even Sanjaya -- seemed larger than life. And all seemed to realize this was the moment they had waited their whole lives for and were going to make the most of it, which meant staying on the red carpet, continuing to face the cameras until most of the crowd inside the party had gone home.

Apparently, I was told, the losing four from this final episode are invited to come to the party too. What a melancholy decision that must be — how could you not try to make the most of your last night in the public eye, even if it was the worst night of your life?

I had difficulty believing that Antonella Barba, at least, would pass up the invitation, agony of defeat be damned when there are cameras to pose for. But as it turned out, none of the four showed.

An understandable but disappointing choice.

Sidenote: Mystery Solved: - Watching Phil Stacey on his first press walk, the question hung over the carpet-- why isn't this sailor on a ship in guarding the Straights of Hormuz or somewhere similarly treacherous in these times of war? I put the question to Ensign Stacey myself, who gave me a surprising description of his military service. He explained that he works for the navy recruiting arm, in fact, as a singer. "That's basically my job," he said "to go around and be a Navy presence. I don't actually fight for the Navy. So they said you can go around and sing at high schools or you can go on American Idol and sing for millions of people." Anchors aweigh!

--Richard Rushfield

The boys keep on fighting
Wed, Mar. 7

Tuesday night the B team -- the boys of "American Idol" -- made their third desperate charge across no man's land. Thankfully it's their last call as a gender-specific group. The previous failures of these guys to achieve any sort of break-through -- individually or collectively -- inspired horror and outrage. Heard around the nation: "How did these lightweights make it to the Idol stage!" "Is there not a real male singer to be found in all of our glorious nation?!" "Who the hell let him sing a Cyndi Lauper song?"

But by this final week, the anger against this group was largely spent, and an elegiac tone of sadness hung in the air. We watched these poor misguided lads, who never should have been on this front, fighting this war -- low on ammunition, spirits sunk -- make one last desperately brave but hopeless charge at the judges. The feeling was less scorn for a losing team, more like that of the final scene of "Gallipoli," set to an Adagio for strings -- we can scorn the waste but admire the courage.

From the opening moments, as each contestant did his introductory parade before the cameras, it was clear that something was gone from these boys -- each struggled to muster a smile for the cameras. Weary and broken from the three week struggle, they trooped past.

And one by one, they met their destiny before the judges - who seemed more sad and disappointed than incensed. Even Paula could muster few encouraging words -- turning in one of her most relentlessly gloomy performances ever.

But the good news for this group is they can't all be sent home this week. All but two will, in fact, go on the fight another week on the big stage. The likely candidates for removal at this point are clearly -- Phil Stacey, Jared Cotter and Brandon Rogers -- but even of this bottom tier, one will survive.

And what is all the more remarkable is that despite their inadequacy thus far, some real personalities have developed out of this group. Hardened by the relentless combat, one can now almost see contenders in Blake Lewis, Sundance Head, Chris Richardson and Chris Sligh. From the forge of war, heroes are made.

Follow up: In last week's review of the men, I asked readers to offer their explanations for the appeal of Sanjaya Malakar, whom if my sources are correct has built a grassroots following which I am generationally impaired from understanding. Thanks to everyone for their letters. Here are is a small sample that sums up their sentiment:

As a former David Cassidy's puppy love! He's adorable and if I were 11 again, I'd vote for him for sure. - Elizabeth Lockhart

I think it's because he looks, sounds, and acts like Michael Jackson. Same smile and timid voice when he talks. - Sandra Rose

It's pretty simple, and completely pre-pubescent. He's cute, in a feminine way, has great hair, loves his sister and would be the best friend of every 12 year old girl not yet thinking about sex. What is the largest voter demographic of American Idol? I rest my case. - Michael Valente

I think all these letters speak to the Hicks factor. Last season it was explained to me that eight year old girls were stuffing the ballot boxes for the non-threatening Taylor Hicks -- whom they saw in his goofiness as a big friendly dancing Muppet. How far can such appeal carry the markedly less talented Sanjaya?

--Richard Rushfield

Tears flow, and Ryan Seacrest almost proves himself
Fri, Mar. 2

Thursday night's "Idol" results show summoned the greatest flood of indignant emotions -- sorrow, grief and outrage -- vented on television since Election night 2000. Tears flooded the semi-finals stage as four more contestants were mercilessly cut down before their prime.

The judges seemed stunned by the American peoples' decision to end the journeys of Nick Pedro, A.J. Tabaldo, Leslie Hunt and Alaina Alexander. Actually, they weren't stunned by the elimination of that final name; Alexander, who had phoned in her performances and arrogantly snorted at the judges' admonitions over the past few weeks proved the justice of her dismissal by breaking down during her goodbye song -- an unprecedented failure.

There are few spectacles more noble in our national culture than the way each week heartbroken dismissed contestants, moments after getting the bad news, are forced to re-sing the song that ended their careers, and almost to a contestant rise to the challenge and come alive -- showing us one last time why they were raised above the masses to be on the "Idol" stage in the first place. Failing to rise to that challenge, Alexander proved the singing was always secondary to her.

As for the judges' outrage at the dismissals of the others -- as Simon acknowledges, this is not a contest of technical precision. Charisma counts and there is no justice to personal charm. Fairly or not, these four names will be forgotten by "Idol" viewers within a month and that is why they are going home.

The dismissal seemed to inspire a flood of tears from the surviving contestants. The otherwise stalwart Sundance Head and Gina Glocksen, in particular, seemed near hysteria in their grief. Can it be that in these moments, they see their own deaths to come? Do they know that the lonely Goodbye song trail is one that they all (but one) are going to have to walk soon enough? To quote the poet Wordsworth on his own loss of innocence:

"Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?"

Soon enough, those bells will toll for thee, Glocksen, and the Reaper will visit your door, Sundance Head. So rejoice in the hours left to you on this mortal plane of singing competition.

Final note: Ryan Seacrest almost justified his existence last night with one offhanded comment. "Idol" alum Kellie Pickler returned to the stage transformed from the innocent country girl "Idol" viewers once knew into a state-of-the-art red carpet glamazon -- an unsettling transformation complete with, it would seem, some very prominent changes to her physique.

When Pickler noted that she'd been doing a lot of shopping and said she'd bought a lot of shoes, Seacrest, without missing a beat, responded, "Is that all you've bought?"

--Richard Rushfield

LaKisha or Melinda?
Thu, Mar. 1

Two weeks into the season proper, the contours of the race seem so firmly set, its hard to imagine that anything could change it. By every available measure (online bookmakers, judges' comments, DialIdol voting information, common sense) Season Six is a two woman race between LaKisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle.

Once again, on Tuesday night, the boys delivered a series of performances woefully inadequate to the fame or obscurity stakes at hand. Once again, the girls were playing in an entirely different universe, with two of them outshining the rest by miles. But lightning could still strike. It has before, sort of. No one believed Taylor Hicks was more than a novelty contestant last year until very late in the game. Despite handicapping that placed him as the enormous favorite, Chris Daughtry was smote by the public and removed from the competition at fourth place.

Contestants can grow. We might wake up and discover Chris Richardson has undreamed of depths. But who are we kidding? Barring a cataclysmic act of God, the remaining contestants will sit on the sidelines until they are picked off four by four then one by one watching Melinda and LaKisha locked in a grueling death struggle back and forth until the finals.

For such a clear race to emerge means that the two warriors, rather than marshaling their resources for a sprint at the end, must prepare for a marathon. How such a grueling slow motion duel will affect the two goliaths is anyone's guess.

The only comparable guide in our culture is a political campaign and, if that offers any hints, we can expect at least one of the competitors to disintegrate under the pressure and the other to develop the sociopathic ability to disassociate herself from her supporters' smear campaign against her opponent while reaping all its benefits.

But that is just one path this battle can take. There will be so many choices for the gladiators in the coming months. The only thing politics can teach us for certain is that, with the race frozen between these two equally matched competitors, we can expect America to divide itself between the two in a desperate struggle for that deciding 1% in a few swing states. An era of brother against brother is likely at hand as counties, workplaces and civic groups align themselves with Melinda or LaKisha and former neighborhoods and friends, finding themselves on opposite sides of the divide, suddenly regard each other with suspicion and distrust.

That is the course that America's political history suggests we soon go down. But then again, the red-blue divide is just over petty things like elections and control of Congress. This is about something serious. This is "American Idol."

--Richard Rushfield

A Visit to the Dawg Pound
Wed, Feb. 28

Before getting into Tuesday night's March of the Duds on "American Idol," let me take you back to a special time, 10 days ago, when the Final 24 were still shrouded in mystery to most of the world. To a special place -- a department store in Beverly Hills called Neiman Marcus -- a land of enchantments to those who live lives devoted to apparel finery. And thus where, on a Sunday afternoon, I came face to face with that giant of fashion and entertainment alike, Mr. Randy Jackson.

From across the men's department I saw him, the diamonds encircling his watch face beckoning like a thousand points of sunlight dancing on an azure sea.

For a moment, I gaped from afar in awe, but didn't approach, considering the great man wants his peace and solitude while practicing religion here at Neiman's. And then I recalled, "Peace and solitude? This is RANDY JACKSON!" and walked over, and asked, "Why aren't there any rockers on the show this year?"

"Really?" he asked, sounding shocked. "There aren't any?"

Far from decking me with his emerald and ruby rings, Mr. Jackson immediately lit up and dove in. For the next 10 minutes I knew the "Idol"-centric bliss few in this media universe achieve of a private audience on the great topics of our age, with the Great Swing Vote himself, who revealed himself to be the mensch di tutti mensches in entertaining my obsessed questioning.

Most interesting, Mr. Jackson revealed that he did not actually remember off the top of his head who the Final 24 would, saying the Hollywood week went by in a whirlwind and that he doesn't watch the audition shows when they air. "I'm not like Seacrest and Cowell who have to put on the TV every time my face is on there," he joked.

Pressed on the rocker issue, he demurred saying Chris Daughtry was the only real rocker contestant they'd had. Constantine Maroulis and Bo Bice were just basically doing retro acts, he said. But today's rock, he continued, is so much about yelling and screeching that it doesn't build the sort of vocal range a singer would need to compete in "Idol." And thus, no one emerged from the tens of thousands that could fill a rocker/singer role. A Daughtry in the wild is a much rarer beast than we might have believed.

Thinking back on this conversation while watching Tuesday's show, I was struck by how much of this competition is actually in the hands of the gods. Surely if it were not on some level a genuine competition, these would not have been the 10, whittled from 12 last week, 12 guys the producers would have wanted to build their show around. Surely, if the hands of the gods and the natural flow of the competition could have been circumvented, a latter day Bice would have been found, his way through the ranks greased until he found himself on the Kodak stage.

But instead, we have these 10 lightweights mugging through Cyndi Lauper, Nina Simone and Peggy Lee standards. It is a reminder that even at the summits of entertainment Universe, the hand of fate and the caprices of the gods still trump anything built here on Earth.

Footnote: I have received many reports that Sanjaya Malakar has acquired a huge following. I may have generational conflicts that prevent me from seeing the genius of young Malakar. Would any who understand please e-mail me ( and explain? The best theories will be published in this space.

--Richard Rushfield

The first dominos fall
Fri, Feb. 23

There is little to renew one’s faith in the wisdom of the American people like the semi-finals of ”Idol.” In politics we’ll seemingly grant any nincompoop in a cheap suit an all-expenses paid ticket to Washington to fiddle with the gears of power for a decade or so. But when it comes to deciding which contestants are fit to advance to the final 12, the our nation speaks with a collective voice to rival King Solomon in its wizened sagacity. Only the best will emerge from the semi-final round, on that we can stand proud.

In this first half of the competition, there is bitter work to be done. At first blush, it is instantly clear that most of these people have no business competing with a straight face for the “Idol” crown. And so for the next three weeks, four at a time, it is our job to toss out that other half of the room. And what is inspiring is how right we get it. (Actually the electorate did put its foot in it this week. Nicole Tranquillo was a superstar and her loss is a travesty.)

One of “Idol”’s great ironies is the goodbye song tradition. After being voted off, the vanquished get to sing one last time, the last time in their lives anyone but their friends and family will ever hear them sing. But they are required to croon the last song they sung, which is to say they are forced to re-sing the song that got them thrown off the show in the first place.

One of last night’s unfortunates, Amy Krebs, actually demurred when shoved forward for her goodbye song asking, “Can I pick another song?” Remarkably, Ryan Seacrest, seeming to acknowledge the tradition’s awkwardness, made a half-hearted feint toward pretending she had a choice, turning back and mumbling to the band, “You want to do the same one from this week. Right- okay…”

During each goodbye song the camera pans over the rows of survivors whose faces are wet with tears. Even hardened rocker-chick Gina Glocksen’s make-up streaked.

The unanswerable question, however, is how many of those tears are for their fallen comrade and how many are giddy relief at having dodged the bullet?

--Richard Rushfield

Girls Night On
Thurs, Feb. 22

It may seem premature to announce this after just one round of performances, but nonetheless it is absolutely, beyond any possible glimmer of a doubt clear that the next American Idol will be female.

Tuesday was the shakiest start in modern memory by the boys; so weak it had me conjuring Doomsday scenarios for the entire franchise. So woeful were the dudes that just hours after rival network head Jeff Zucker called Idol the “most impactful show in the history of television” I lay awake wondering if the show was being set up for a massive fall triggered by one season’s all-dud line-up.

But then the ladies stepped forward and reminded us what Idol is about – that beyond all the freak show auditions and judges backstage drama, the show still produces these moments when an little nobody from nowhere steps forward and sings with the power of the gods and suddenly the Earth stops. Nothing remotely like that occurred on boys night but it happened at least three times on girls night. The Universe as we know it will survive.

One alarming note however. There is the misapprehension infecting many of the contestants, but particularly several of the girls – the name Haley Scarnato springs to mind – that cockiness and insane, not-yet-remotely-justified-self-confidence can carry you through this competition. Apparently many of this year’s semi-finalists have never watched an episode of American Idol before or they’d know that the “I know I am the next American Idol” attitude is an amusing shtick for the crazy auditionees, and even the novelty contestants who might make it as far as the Top 7.

But when America chooses who will represent us we demand humility before all else. You didn’t hear Hicks or Underwood bragging that “No one was going to stop me” or “I’m here to win.”

Hell no. They bashfully stared down at their feet and mumbled about how it was just so much fun to be here and what a great experience its all been and they just can’t believe how supportive everyone has been. And that’s how our champion behaves.

That said, on the Howard Stern show last week, Joan Rivers said Carrie Underwood has the biggest attitude of any star she has to deal with on the red carpet. Go figure.

--Richard Rushfield

Here Come the Guys
Wednesday, Feb. 21

Every season’s first episode brings a lurch to the stomach. We see these 24 unformed, rough talents and the question looms heavy in the ether: is there a Kelly Clarkson among this crowd? Can the next Clay Aiken be hanging over that railing before us?

And at first glance, the answer is generally, absolutely not. There is no way that these wild, untamed beasts of the singing jungles can rise in one song, in one episode to the stature of the giants of entertainment. That kind of gravitas only comes after an entire season of trials and setbacks and brilliant breakthroughs.

That said, if I were the Idol producers after last night’s first peek at the guys, I would be very concerned.

It’s not just that the guys in their maiden outing were a little rough or nervous. That is to be expected. But more problematic, both as a group and individually they seemed utterly lightweight, like mildly pleasant members of third string boy bands. Only three looked like potential long range contenders -beat-boxer Blake Lewis, back-up singer Brandon Rogers, and kinda-engagingly weird looking guy Chris Richardson. And none of these really looked like they were ready to go all the way.

One tries to remember one’s feelings on first seeing Yamin, on the first glance at a Covington or a Scott Savol of yore. Clearly, they were not at first blush giants waiting to be unleashed on entertainment. But they had something at first…Or is this just the perpetual cry of an aging generation of Idol fans – that the contestants of my day were true stars, not like these flim flam artists.

The next few months will tell if these twelve can walk in their predecessors footsteps. In the meantime, if I were the producers, I’d be praying that the girls better be pretty darn good. And these guys better be thankful for the gender quota system that guarantees, one way or another, half of them will make it to the finals.

A last note: One of the great questions of Idolology is how much do Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest really dislike each other. Mostly they harmlessly play up the bad-natured ribbing knowing it is part of the show’s appeal – Simon as the heavy, occasionally lashing out at his light-weight tormentor. But last night, during the “sweetheart” exchange, Cowell and his clenched jaw seemed very genuinely to be wishing Seacrest and his puffy shirt and vest combo dead.

--Richard Rushfield

Next floor/stop, ‘Idol’-style immortality
Thursday, Feb. 15

In many ancient cultures – I don’t recall exactly which – the greatest curse that can befall a person is to have his or her name wiped out of human memory. For a soul to wander the Universe for all eternity, anonymous and unmourned. That fate awaited 16 contestants on Wednesday’s “American Idol” who gathered at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to hear their fates.

After whittling down the pool to a mere 40 contestants in the Hollywood round, the show then takes a not-entirely explained pause to reconsider everyone by “reviewing the tapes.” And, presumably, to run background checks to learn who is a wanted drug-runner, who has a secret EMI recording contract and who has abandoned families in every state.

The 40 are then called back to spend an entire day sitting in a waiting room before they are summoned for a lonely elevator ride into a ballroom where they must take the longest walk of their lives across a Mussolini-sized floor to sit before the trinity, lined up with echoes of “Flashdance” to reveal the judgment of Paris.

It certainly is no longer necessary to win “American Idol” to become a star; losers from past top 12’s have gone on to produce bestselling albums (Clay Aiken), receive Oscar nods (Jennifer Hudson) and hold microphones on red carpets (Kellie Pickler). Even those from past top 24’s who failed to make the big show still spark a glimmer of recognition among the devoted.

However those who come this far only to die on the far bank of the Jordan will know no glory, no afterlife, not even survive in our memory to season’s end as amusing curiosity. This final show is really all icing, no cake – a dream show of pure dramatic denouement with an entire hour devoted to nothing but telling the contestants, ather having come this far, this close to greatness, whether it will all be taken away.

There can be no construct on television more diabolically devised to squeeze tension out of a situation than the final shared elevator ride. At the end of the day, everyone has gone upstairs to learn their fate except “two guys and two girls” and we are told, there is only a slot for one of each. Nearly hysterical from a whole day sitting in a waiting room with their future dangled in the balance, in pairs, they are made to ride up the elevator to sit before the judges. And then beautifully, once one has learned her life is over and the other has just been handed immortality, they must ride back down in the elevator together again, a thin pretense of camaraderie still intact. It may be the longest one-floor of their lives, but in this moment, if never again, everyone on the ride is making show biz history.

--Richard Rushfield

It all blew up too soon
Wednesday, Feb. 14

The most astonishing thing about "American Idol's" Hollywood round of auditions is how the producers managed to squeeze so much drama into one measly hour of television. After the gnawing tedium of the audition tour weeks, the pathos speeds by in a blur; surely Simon Fuller could have milked an eight-hour miniseries out of this episode. If we can't count on "Idol" to squeeze out every possible milligram of tension, what is the world coming to?

Hollywood began with a brutal round of slaughter that, even to a hardened viewer, sucked one's breath away like the impact waves from a nuclear explosion. In the opening moments, the assembled winners from the audition tour took the stage in groups of six to sing for 30 seconds apiece. Having been raised out of the masses gathered at the nation's great stadiums; having traveled to Los Angeles for the one shot at greatness their lives would ever know, it all came down to 30 seconds on a very cold stage.

And then the verdicts. One by one they fell — the heroes of Birmingham, of Minneapolis, of Seattle. The sailor, the soldier and the girl who lied to her father — all their dreams were snatched away in the show's first minutes.

And the carnage continued into the group performances, which once again sped by entirely too quickly. Could there be anything more fun than watching the guy groups trying to choreograph themselves? And the producers must have done some sort of incredible acts of charity in the off-season to be handed by God on a silver platter the spectacle of Bailey "the born pop singer" trying to maintain a disintegrating rehearsal with the bickering best friends from Jersey — only to climax in a historic stumble as Bailey waltzed right into the judges' pet peeve by blanking her lines.

It seemed every potential giant we'd met on the tour was sent home. But the worst was to come. There is no more tense moment in the "Idol" season, nay in all of the arts, than the time when the 60-some finalists are divided into three rooms, sitting in near hysterical tears, waiting for the judges to appear and pronounce the entire room's fate. The collective anxiety heightens the tension to unbearable levels, summoning far more genocidal imagery than a singing contest ever should.

At the end, 34 remained standing. In Wednesday's episode, 10 of these will be dispatched into the void. And then, the competition begins in earnest.

--Richard Rushfield

The truth sometimes hurts in Texas
Wednesday, Feb. 7

And so the seven-stop, Season 6 audition tour of “American Idol” whimpered to a halt in San Antonio, Texas on Tuesday. (Actually, it’s not quite over; Wednesday night’s episode is a “Best of the Rest”, audition leftovers special.)

The audition tour is not for everyone; not even every hardened “Idol” fan has it in them to sit through ten-some hours of deluded non-talents having their dreams ripped to shreds while a table full of judges struggle to contain their amusement. But the auditions provide a space for a couple of things most of us so rarely encounter in our lives – a (usually) respectful hearing followed by the undiluted truth. And this, is what makes the potentially-tedious tour compelling viewing. OK, that and the weirdoes.

But just to underline the massive achievement of that respectful hearing part. After six seasons, these judges have sat through, likely, thousands of auditions. And still, the trio actually stop and listen to each contestant as they shuffle before the honorary Kelly Clarkson wall. Even when they are in an astronaut costume or crawling on the floor like a jungle cat, the judges give them to chance to be heard (usually), open to the possibility that, hey, you never know. Five years in Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson are still listening.

And once they’ve heard them out, even more improbably, they give them the respect of giving their honest opinion; without patronizing or whitewashing, they tell them what they thought. Anyone who has ever had a conversation with another human being can tell you, that is something that it almost impossible to do. But without flinching (except for Paula) the verdict is delivered. Whether it is, “You were born to be a pop star” or “You have a massive personality problem” no one leaves the room wondering anymore whether they have it or don’t.

To a contestant on Tuesday night’s episode who sobbed as the results trickled in following her performance, Randy asked in the sympathetic but firm voice you want to believe that you would want to be spoken to all the time (but certainly wouldn’t), “You want us to be honest with you right?” And when the contestant nodded, he said, “It really wasn’t good.”

Not harsh, but there it was. And Simon told the “small town girl”, “you are commercial with a capital C” and she asked, insanely, “Is that a good thing?” he could nod with conviction so pure, it could melt your heart “Yes, it’s a very good thing.”

-- Richard Rushfield

From Birmingham to L.A.: Paula's back in force
Thursday, Feb. 1

Any notions that “American Idol” had put the “Is Paula crazy?” debate behind it were shattered with the middle judge’s performance this week.

On Tuesday night’s audition show, held in Birmingham, Ala., Abdul turned in a classic performance of her personal genre, bobbing, weaving, leaping from her seat, crawling on her knees, hysterically overreacting, making out-of-context funny faces and swaying to a private orchestra performing in her head.

Suspicions of some sort of somersault off some wagon or another were raised only when Abdul was mysteriously absent for the second day of the Birmingham tryouts, having returned to Los Angeles, as host Ryan Seacrest cryptically informed the audience, for “family obligations.” (Whatever. Learned Kremlinologists will read much into the outburst of overt dementia, and her seeming return to manageably kooky behavior by Wednesday night’s show — the L.A. auditions.)

As this latest episode shows, the genius of Fox’s “Idol” has been its ability to milk its own drama. Last season, for example, rather than hide its breaking scandal (again Abdul-centric, re: her relationship with a contestant) under a bushel, the show played it for all it was worth, joshing about the questions on the air and delivering montages of wacky-Paula.

Are they now reintroducing a tried and true, tabloid-baiting storyline by giving another glimpse of crazy Paula? The theory is supported by the outburst hours before the show aired of a universally hyped story that an “Idol” producer had sought out none other than the Mental Health Queen of 2006 Courtney Love as a replacement for Abdul. Although later convincingly denied, the rumor had all the makings of the perfect p.r. stunt.

In any event, at a mere hour each the week’s two audition shows lacked something of the grandeur one expects from an Idol prequel episode.

Returning to the hometowns of last years finalists, Taylor Hicks (Birmingham) and Katharine McPhee (L.A.), the episodes also failed to perform at the high end of their range. The freak parade trooped past in decent form, but very, very few rough diamonds appeared. In fact, with only one audition episode left to air, more or less none of the contestants we have seen look likely, by any standard, to make it to the show’s final tier.

Granted, there are many auditions we have not seen but by this point in the season, the show has usually groomed a few likely contenders – with video profiles, up close and personal Seacrest interviews and inspiring auditions – for greatness. Thus far, we’ve seen a possible Mandisa or two, perhaps a future Lisa Tucker or tomorrow’s Anthony Federov, but where is the next McPhee, the next Bo Bice or even 2007’s Elliot Yamin?

And further, isn’t holding an audition in Los Angeles at all just an empty charade? After the horrifying spectacle of Katherine McPhee’s contest-losing journey home to Studio City last year, need we pretend that America is in any way prepared to accept a native Angeleno as its champion? Like it or not, L.A., until you raise a native son who can speak convincingly about eating ribs for breakfast, and your zip code starts with something other than a “9,” that glass ceiling is meant for you.

-- Richard Rushfield

New York: City of Drama
Thursday, Jan. 25

As was entirely predictable, the New York City stop of "American Idol" produced a packed-to-the-rafters two hours of trying-too-hard-to-be-crazy drama queens -- a chorus line of borderline personalities with itchy fingers on the hissy fit button. That said, there is something compelling about watching summer stock drop-outs play out the poles of their emotional range. If we didn't enjoy high drama, we probably wouldn't be watching "Idol" in the first place.

The tone was set early on by an 19-year-old Ohioan, who, choking out her words between fits of sobbing, told host Ryan Seacrest how she had lied to her father, claiming that she was staying at her friend Rachel's house, and snuck off to New York to audition (do 19-year-olds have curfews?). She was trying out under the cover of lies because, she explained, her father never supported her and all she wanted to do was make him proud.

After against all laws of nature she turned out to be not so bad and won a ticket to Hollywood for the next round, she called her father, who seemed entirely supportive and to think it was a nice thing that his daughter had done well. Which in turn induced another round of hysterical sobbing. You'd have to be a harder man than I not to watch this not swell with pride for TV's new Golden Age.

Some random thoughts and questions from the New York visit:

— Simon Cowell, in his testy impatience with the auditioners, who were acting up for the camera, seems dangerously close to becoming a character denying the premise of his own show.

— Whenever he is pictured getting out of his limo, Simon is talking on a cell phone -- proof that truly he is the most powerful man on Earth.

— Paula Abdul has been goofy but very much awake, and even perky, during the last couple of episodes.

— In their completely forgettable inane mumbles, the celebrity guest judges (Carole Bayer Sager sat in tonight) demonstrate how hard Simon's, Randy Jackson's and sometimes Paula's job really is.

— Twice this season, the judges have summoned security to remove a guest and they appear in an instant. The show's security must be on red super-alert from the moment a contestant enters. Which makes you think, they are doing a show where they summon in dozens of crazy people and crush their hopes and dreams of fame and riches -- the judges' jobs are probably on a level with Delta Force munitions expert in terms of staring danger in the eye every time you go to the office.

— The editing takes great pains never to show the young lady who sits in a folding chair by the door and hands winners their golden tickets.

— In many of the segments, particularly with the crazies, we see the contestants enter, tell the judges about themselves and their song choice, sing, be rejected and storm out of the building in rage. But later, when those same contestants are included in the montage of the one lame song every one is asked to sing. When do they shoot this? Do they call them back after they've stormed off?

As ever, with a text as rich and complex as "Idol," every new set of answers only leads to a larger field of questions.

-- Richard Rushfield

Stable ground in Memphis
Wednesday, Jan. 24

Memphis, the third stop on the "American Idol" audition tour, produced the fodder for the perfect mini-episode. Toning back the theater of cruelty to just the right degree of compassionate viciousness, mixed with a couple of diamonds in the rough, a few jaw-dropping human oddities and an aw, shucks ending, the Memphis days restored the heavyweight champion show's balance after a wobbly first week.

Clocking in with remarkable restraint at a single hour of prime-time television rather than the standard two (barely more than the State of the Union address), Tuesday's episode soared. Last week's double-feature of premieres seemed uncertain, largely because of the parade of contenders to the William Hung throne, who were genuinely, impressively freakish, and showed unflinching commitment to their bizarre talents. Memphis' hopefuls were the real deal of the alternate reality showcase. From a dancing queen who threatened to tumble out of her precarious V-neck during a frenzied "Disco Inferno" to a 300-pound lug who planned to become the next American Idol to teach his cheating ex-wife a lesson to a very slow-talking teenager who may have actually been handicapped, the sideshow delivered in Memphis.

Interestingly, with the more obviously delusional guests the judges seemed to soften the blow of destroying their deepest hopes and dreams; pausing for moments of, not quite, but almost, sympathy before sending a few on their way.

And for the first time this season, a few contenders with the potential to go the distance emerged: a blues singer with perhaps the most offensively giant soul patch ever to appear on network television, and another, an insecure backup singer taking a first tentative step into the foreground. Both provided those other moments that the audition shows are about — when some unlikely, unimpressive-seeming nobody from nowhere steps before the judges and the Earth suddenly pauses on its axis as 30 million viewers say "Are we crazy or can that little mutt actually sing?"

Best line of the night: Paula Abdul to Danielle, an 18-year-old with a very complex bed-head cut and bejeweled burgundy halter top after her performance of "Baby, I Love You": "You have an old soul."

— Richard Rushfield

Friends are for the weak
Thursday, Jan. 18

Three segments into Wednesday night’s episode of “American Idol,” host Ryan Seacrest asked a young woman who had just flunked her audition, and blamed the failure on nerves, “So you don’t normally sound like a goat?” The young woman paused for half an instant before answering: “I hope not. Otherwise people have been lying to me.”

If there is one message to take away from the audition episodes of the most powerful show in the history of television, it is this: Do not trust your friends!

The thrill of the audition weeks is piecing together what on Earth these people can possibly be thinking — the freaks, the uncoordinated, the tone deaf, the wearers of hot-pink mesh body stockings. Can they actually believe that their screeching is passable singing, even in a neighborhood karaoke bar? Are they that deeply deluded about how they are seen? Or is it just a joke to get on TV? One possible explanation that suggested itself repeatedly Wednesday night was the malevolent influence of friends in a person’s life — friends who reassure you, who tell you, “No, really, you have an amazing voice.” Friends whose fear of upsetting you leads you to wear that ridiculous suede vest in public — or to audition for “American Idol.” Well, if we didn’t have friends in life, perhaps we wouldn’t need Simon Cowell.

But the wantonly misguided serve the major role in these episodes. While the formal goal of the auditions is to find a new Kelly Clarkson in the rough, what really drives the auditions is the search for a new William Hung — the Chinese American UC Berkeley student whose delightfully tragic audition rendering of “She Bangs” propelled him to viral stardom. Despite annual attempts to create anti-stars out of their audition rejectees, “Idol” has never since scaled those heights. (Imagine how much more famous Hung would have become in the YouTube world.)

One candidate with Hung-like star potential did emerge, however — a possibly Asperger’s-plagued software engineer from Salt Lake City, who took to the audition floor and, after telling the judges that his “Idol” candidacy was based on the fact that “I am a leader,” performed perhaps the most unhinged version of “Unchained Melody” ever created, prompting Cowell, who had been rather blasé in his dismissals up to that point, to stammer: “What the bloody hell was that?"

As far as the public seems concerned, that was the sound of pure entertainment. It turned out that 36.9 million people tuned in for Night 2 of the audition tour, giving the guys in the Uncle Sam costumes, the supernerds and the just plain misguided an audience closely rivaling the Oscars. So if it’s fame they are after, they might not be so darn crazy after all.

--Richard Rushfield

Show Tracker is a new column that follows television series through their highs and lows.

The sleeping giant awakens!
Wednesday, Jan. 17

NOT a show to hide its light under a bushel, the reigning heavyweight champion of prime-time television, "American Idol," thundered back to the airwaves Tuesday night, proclaiming the full weight of its showbiz-shaking credentials from the very first moment.

Season 6 began with a slow-motion flashback, set to portentous war drums, to last season's close, the Taylor Hicks coronation. "Together," Ryan Seacrest proclaimed, "we've created a phenomenon. Together, we've changed lives and discovered remarkable talents."

Trumpets flourished as Seacrest incanted the roll call of "Idol" triumphs past: Kelly Clarkson -- the original Idol, potential Oscar contender Jennifer Hudson, country superstar Carrie Underwood, America's sweetheart Katharine McPhee (OK, maybe that's a stretch) and a hundred No. 1 CD's.

Cue the Who's intro to "Baba O'Reilly" and montages of stadiums filling up with this year's contenders (more than 100,000 in seven cities), and somewhere in one of those crowds sits at least one auditionee bound for bona fide stardom. There is little subtle about "American Idol," but unless you are a complete rejectionist of contemporary American culture, it is hard to deny the effectiveness with which the Fox show wields its grand dramatic sweep, especially as each season seems to propel its finalists to ever greater heights of fame, raising the stakes and, against all odds, making it more relevant as it ages.

The auditions kicked off on a gleefully spiteful note. In contrast to last year, when the holy trinity seemed rundown and cranky from the tour's very start, the judges mounted the review stand in a seemingly peppy and cranky mood this year, laughing through half-baked renditions of "Under Pressure" and otherworldly Prince covers with an energetic dismissiveness.

Missing was the sympathetic note from designated nice judge Paula Abdul, who turned in a subdued performance, free of both empathy for the losers and her trademark disintegrating breakdown moments. (Those on Paula crazywatch would find little supporting evidence.)

Guest judge Jewel seemed on hand mostly to demonstrate her skills at sitting up straight and smiling blankly while cultivating a Paris Hilton look. The audition episodes always dangerously tread the line between useful and needless cruelty when delivering the news to those with misguided thoughts of becoming a singer. As Simon Cowell told one contestant, "The good news today is you found out what you're not going to be so you can just move on."

However, as the camera followed that contestant, a devoted Jewel fan, out into the hall and lingered as she broke down in inconsolable sobbing to her family, what initially seemed like good fun turned into something more brutal.

And then the guy in the Uncle Sam costume and boxing gloves got up to sing Italian arias. Get ready for another good hard look in the mirror, America.

-- Richard Rushfield

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