After Wednesday's soporific first night of Hollywood week, in which 190 contestants were unexcitingly albeit swiftly reduced to 108, on Thursday, "American Idol" moved on to the group round, in which the contestants historically get little sleep, and mercifully, so do the viewers.
The contestants must cluster into groups of three or four, with no exceptions (except, OK, one exception -- see "compelling story line 3" below), and then select and perfect a song in only one night. They are expected to not only mesh with their group and harmonize but to stand out, to let their personalities and voices shine through, but not, perhaps, in a way that overpowers fellow group members. Choreography is a plus.
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"It's designed to be brutal," Harry Connick Jr. said at the show's outset. "Contestants being thrown on a stage with very little preparation, working with people that you're not comfortable with, performing when you're sick -- these are all things every performer has to learn how to do."
Every year, groups break up and cast members find themselves ditched. They fall prey to squabbles and meddling stage moms. Singers weep in frustration, forget lyrics, find themselves castigated by the judges for neglecting to embrace the moment. This year did not disappoint.
A few compelling story lines from Thursday's sprawling two-hour show:
Compelling story line 1:
"The Voice" veteran Shelbie Z may have a big voice and perhaps a slightly cold heart: She unceremoniously ditched her fellow group members, Tonie Starr and Marlena Johnson, early on, leaving them "high and dry" and in danger of elimination.
They were rescued by La'Porsha Renae, whose heart proved as big as her hair and almost as lovely as her 10-month-old daughter's smile. "If I was in their shoes and a door was closed in my face, I would want someone to open a window," she said.
Renae's sudden move rocked the members of the group she had been in, Manny Torres, Maile Delgado and Christian Eason, but they pulled it together and rocked their performance.
At the end of the day, all seven of these singers made it through. Even though Johnson flubbed the lyrics to "Stayin' Alive," she did it fabulously. "That's how you forget words," Connick said.
Compelling story line 2:
Miranda "Poh" Scott, whose sister Shi made it fairly far in the "Idol" competition last season, bailed on group members Dalton Rapattoni and Kassy Levels and on the entire show, two hours into group round rehearsals, although it took Rapattoni and Levels a while to figure it out.
"She can't do this," her dad told a contestant coordinator named Grady, who'd called to find out what was going on. "I understand the show and I get it, but she can't do it."
Meanwhile, Anatalia Villaranda was not meshing well with her group mates, Sonika Vaid, Stephany Negrete and Andrew Nazarbekian, and after her mom demanded that the group switch songs, they ditched her. Eventually, and with help from her mom, Villaranda found her way to Rapattoni and Levels. They did so well with their performance of
"It's hard because even when the whole group kind of does well together we still have to send people home …," she told them, as the camera flashed through close-ups of the singers' uneasy faces. "But in this group, that's not the case, all of you are going through to the next round."
Oh, that JLo.
And for what it's worth, Vaid, Negrete and Nazarbekian -- the group, called Envy who left Villaranda behind -- all made it through to the next round too.
Compelling story line 3:
Remember how last night we learned that contestant Trent Harmon had a raging case of mononucleosis? He had joked about having to practice with his fellow group members from a distance, but it turned out to be no joke. In fact, the producers, apparently unwilling to absorb the liability of having him infect others, gave him two options: perform solo or go home. Harmon figured, since he "didn't have anything else to do today," he'd go for it.
"Fifteen seasons we've never had a group of one. Move around, do something, just to make it exciting," "Idol" music guru Michael Orland counseled Harmon.
"I've got to perform the vocals worth of four people," Harmon observed. "There's just really nothing to it except rising to the occasion. I just hope my voice meets me there."
"One thing about that song -- it sounds better in mono," Connick said, amusing himself, if no one else.
"I don't know that it was just your illness that kept other contestants away from you," Urban told Harmon. "I don't think anyone wants to go near your talent, man. That was really, really good."
Lopez, called him a "real trouper."
Harmon made it through, and his earnest surprise at his unexpected triumph made us root for him all the more.
Lots of other early faves impressed the judges -- from Jenn Blosil to Jenna Renae to Gianna Isabella, Lee Jean, Jeneve Rose Mitchell and beyond.