My favorite annual piece of fake American Idol suspense-building went down on tonight’s episode. After they all sing, the contestants get divided into different rooms, and then the judges visit each room to tell everyone whether they made the cut or not. And it’s never even remotely suspenseful, especially this year. Usually, the judges throw a little bit of a curveball, sending home some of the prospects who have gotten heavy camera time. This time, anyone in any of those rooms could’ve just glanced around and figured out whether they were safe or not. Like, they were definitely never going to send home Chris Medina, the guy whose girlfriend had the traumatic brain injury, or Jacee Badeaux, the 15-year-old who looks like he’s 10. But Chelsee Oaks, the red-haired girl whose chump-ass ex-boyfriend already got bounced? I thought she did a pretty good countried-up take on Kelly Clarkson, but I’m not shocked or appalled to see her disappear, especially after she said that the sick roommate she met like two days earlier was her “best friend in the world.” She can go. It’s fine.
The only real surprise on tonight’s show was the inexplicable persistence of Ashley Sullivan, the skinny, cracked-out basket case who finds some new way to break down in tears and bug out every time she has to sing a song. When she manages to get through a line or two without dissolving into a bag of nerves, she seems like she can actually sing really well. But tonight, she turned into a twitchy, apologizing mess before she’d even hit the chorus of the song she was trying to sing. (My wife Bridget: “I just want to watch Simon talk to her for five seconds.) And yet, she remains on the show. I can only imagine the judges are keeping her on as some diabolical experiment in human psychology, like they want to see how many times a person’s spirit can be completely broken before she attempts to eat Ryan Seacrest’s face.
There were a few other people who sucked tonight, like Frances Coontz, who is incredibly good at wearing giant nerd glasses but not quite so good at singing in key. But those people disappeared right away, and the show didn’t even make a big thing about it. Emotional heart-tugging editing pyrotechnics were mostly gone from this episode. Instead, it was 45 solid minutes of people singing, with some judging silliness tacked onto the end. And god knows anything could happen when the live shows start up, and I have no idea whether any of these kids will have any sort of persistent charisma, but it sure seems like we have some people who can sing on this show. That’s nice to know.
My favorite moments on the show last night came from the contestants who never got video packages, who we’ve barely seen over the course of the show. For instance, there’s Jacob Lusk, an insanely gifted singer with crazy, all-over-the-place jazz phrasing and the range and inclination to go from extremely low to extremely high in one step. I don’t usually like singers like that, but this guy’s sheer talent, and his clearly visible emotion when he’s exercising that talent, is some shit to see. I really hope he makes it onto the real show. I felt the same way about John Wayne Schulz, previously only seen lurking in the background as a big goofy guy with a cowboy hat. Tonight, we got to see him do a restrained grown-man take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, which he sang like someone who’d actually had a few experiences in his life and who didn’t mind letting them show through in his voice. Also, I appreciate the balls of anyone who will willingly wear a massive cowboy hat on every day of these auditions.
As for the people we’ve seen a million times, I had fun watching the show make sport of Scotty McCreary, the 16-year-old country singer with the depth-charge voice who only wants to sing that one Josh Turner song over and over and over. When he forgot the words to “I Hope You Dance”, the show helpfully threw down fake subtitles for him, and, I mean, that’s always funny. And he still made it through to the next round; this show is determined to make him happen. I’m OK with that; I like the kid’s voice. I’m also developing a real attachment to Carson Higgins, a blonde actor guy from L.A. who comes equipped with a terrifying sort of fired-up swagger. He sang “My Prerogative” tonight and blew it out of the water, while sensitive snooze Chris Medina tried to do it acoustic and looked like a lost little kid in the process. If the whole Idol thing doesn’t work out for Higgins, here’s hoping he gets character-actor roles playing scary-intense coke dealers. He’d be good at that.