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American Idol Recap: Charity and Cringing on ‘Idol Gives Back’

Losers and soon-to-be losers, reunited at last!

American Idol's semiannual charity fund-raiser, "Idol Gives Back," is a worthy affair, forcing TV's biggest regular audience to realize how the lives of hungry and ailing people around the world can be substantially improved and sometimes literally saved based upon $10 to $50 donations. And if it takes a two-and-a-half-hour broadcast hosted by Ryan Seacrest to raise $15 million (last night's total), then so be it.

That being said — and credit being given to all the performers, sponsors, famous faces, and home viewers who contributed — last night’s special was a long, tedious, and oftentimes painful exercise in mainstream mediocrity that was sure to test even the most devoted fan.

To be fair, the night did end on a satisfying note. Instead of one of those charitable “no one goes home” endings, Tim Urban was finally eliminated, with Casey James (no huge surprise) and Aaron Kelly (you’re next, kid) joining him in the bottom three. Tim, the boy of a thousand smiles, obviously saw this one coming a mile away, even through those lustrous, clockwise-twisted moptop bangs. He took the news graciously, looking appreciative to have made it this far at all. Expect to see his smiling face in Colgate commercials for months to come.

But before Tim was sent home some two hours and twenty minutes into the show, we had to be “entertained” by some of today’s top stars. Though Idol did put a fair roster of talent together, something about charity specials incites typically creative people to produce forgettable, worthless material, (i.e., “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”). A prime example from last night was the skit featuring Jonah Hill and Russell Brand, casting the two as well-meaning but inept telethon operators. It would have been a fine premise had either written in a single joke to pad out their screen time. While the two mugged at the camera, Seacrest revealed his inability to play the straight comedic foil. It was sad that Hill and Brand combined — plus guest appearances by Slash and Jim Carrey — couldn’t even scare up an appreciative chortle. Plus, it's difficult to see this as a selfless act of charity when you know that Brand and Hill are stealthly promoting their movie, Get Him to the Greek, which opens in June.

The laziest moment of the night, however, was the Black Eyed Peas’ performance of their new single “Rock That Body,” (watch it below) which will probably (tragically) dominate the clubs for the next few months. While the BEPs have been known to take disparate choruses, throw them together, and call the result a song (“My Humps”), this new single has about as much to do with pop music as it does musical deconstructionsim.

Completely devoid of melody or rhythm, ”Rock That Body” is their most non-song song yet. You have to wonder how they write this stuff; it’s as if they entered a studio and all started shouting cliché catchphrases like “I wanna dance,” “Rock your body,” and “All my super-fly ladies!” until someone laid down a prerecorded beat, they hired some dancers to dress as seventies robots, and called it a day.

Not every performer last night seemed intent on making viewers feel as miserable as the suffering people on the heart-tugging video packages. Carrie Underwood delivered a show-stopping performance of “Change” that was not only better than her studio version but also better than everything else last night (sorry, Alicia Keys, your voice seemed a bit weak and breathy).

The other memorable performance of the night — simply by virtue of its WTF value — was Mary J. Blige taking on the holiest of rock holies, “Stairway to Heaven.” Randy Jackson joined her on bass (yep, same one, dawg), while Blink-182’s Travis Barker played drums and Steve Vai and Orianthi shared ax-grinding duties. It wasn’t the disaster it could have been — it was fairly enjoyable before it got to the bridge — but everyone would have been better served if Seacrest had cut her off in the opening notes: No Stairway! Denied!

Other notable moments:

• President Obama (via video) urged us to give to those in need, and Michelle mock-scolded Simon, telling him to be nice. Barack told the contestants, “Y’all are my dawgs,” a recommendation that’s sure to come in handy on Tim Urban’s newly circulating résumé.

• We also heard from the second most powerful couple in the world, Bill and Melinda Gates. It was hard to say whether Bill Gates is the world’s stiffest interviewee or if Seacrest is the world’s clumsiest interviewer. Let’s call it a tie.

• Season nine's original top twelve reunited to perform “Keeping the Dream Alive.” To illustrate what exactly Seacrest meant when he talked about “those in need of help and hope,” Andrew and Lacey sang for us again.

• Queen Latifah, who emceed the Pasadena auditorium, was oddly mute about the presence of Todd Bridges in the audience.

• Annie Lennox related the story of a 7-year-old born with HIV who weighed as much as a 1-year-old. Lennox picked up the story again a few months down the road (but merely seconds later via TV magic) and demonstrated that thanks to charitable donations, this girl was nursed back to health and now has a real shot at life. That segment was more powerful than Lennox’s dynamic performance, which is saying something.

• Jennifer Garner traveled to Appalachia to remind us that illiteracy isn't just a problem overseas. And to demonstrate that malnutrition affects more than just the homeless, Idol welcomed back Victoria Beckham.

• George Lopez hopped onstage to “judge the judges,” indulging in a variety of “did he just say that?!” jokes. For instance (prepare to laugh!): You can see Simon’s nipples through his tight shirt, Ellen dances a lot, and Lopez has a room covered with nude photos of Kara. This might have been funny if you were light-headed from starvation. On the other hand, it may have been worth enduring to hear the desperate, forced laughter when Lopez mocked Randy for overusing the word “pitchy.” One could sense Conan O'Brien out there somewhere, engaging in deep second thoughts about his new network.

• Wanda Sykes’s brief set was much funnier: She pointed out the cruelty of kicking someone off the show then making them watch a video of times when they thought they had the whole world at their feet. Apparently privy to the results before they were announced, the camera immediately cut to Tim.

• Sir Elton John called himself a Luddite because he stumbled over the difference between .com and .org. Hold me closer, aging wordsmith.

• Morgan Freeman wants Americans to eat less. But the commercials seem to think fried-chicken slices are the new bread buns, and it’s hard to say who’s right.

• Joss Stone sang “I Put a Spell on You” backed by Jeff Beck, whose arms just might match Madonna’s in terms of emaciation.

Next week Shania Twain returns to mentor the top six when they perform the songbook of one of the great immortals: Shania Twain. If Aaron Kelly sings “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” he just might save himself from elimination based on kitsch value alone.

Other Recaps:
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey was impressed with Randy's voiceover skills when he and Morgan Freeman visited Mississippi together: "Randy has good voiceover skills, and that's saying something if he's walking and talking next to God."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak "loved how Tim raised his arms in victory and let out a little whoop when Ryan declared that Casey was safe, and that he'd reached the end of his Idol journey.'"

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX