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Paul F. Tompkins on American Idol’s Austin Auditions

Holly Cavanagh, moments before breaking into convulsive — but effective! — tears

Hello, Idolliputians! Here we are in Austin, the city that exists so Texas can feel separate not only from America, but also from a part of Texas itself. The episode opens with a title card, upon which is a disclaimer stating Steven Tyler is just too, too outrageous and has been asked to tone it down. Blah blah blah, next thing we see, Steven Tyler almost says “fuck.” Look, I know that not all of entertainment is geared toward me. It wouldn’t be fair if it were. But if you find this guy’s shtick entertaining, YOU ARE NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH. Yes, I am saying it goes beyond personal taste and it is incumbent upon you to find better things funny. I don’t know how you will do this. Have a Flowers for Algernon operation, something. Please. There’s so much more out there for you, if only you weren’t the way you are.

Let’s begin! Cory Levoy’s biggest fan is his sister Brooks. Cory and Brooks grew up mere minutes from each other but didn’t actually meet until they were teenagers “due to parental differences,” as Cory so tactfully puts it. Thanks for the tact, Cory. You know that the story of your meeting is only truly interesting if we know why you were kept apart, right? No? You don’t know that? You aren’t actually reading this in the past and will tell the story of your crazy upbringing so that I can see it tonight, in the present? Fair enough, Cory. Fair enough. Brooks loves watching Cory sing and the judges invite her in to do so. These are happening a lot, lately, these invitations. I’m not a fan. Cory sings nicely and gives Brooks “chill-bumps.” I bet these chill-bumps figure into the mysterious origin of parental differences! Perhaps they’re from space! Cory gets in. It is worth (to me) noting that Cory and Brooks wear sort of matching striped shirts, except Cory’s stripes are vertical and Brooks’s are horizontal. They might think they’re twins. This is a disorder common to children born of parental differences.

Holly Cavanagh is 17 years old and sings “At Last,” the perfect song choice for someone who has barely been alive. She is clearly nervous. Comedian Steven Tyler gets serious for a moment and tells her she’s all over the place with the melody, which is true. Randy tells Holly it’s a no, and Holly starts crying from, it looks like, the very depths of her soul! It’s actually really hard to watch because she seems like the nicest kid in the world. The judges ask her to take another shot with a different song, and — we cut to a commercial! We cut back and … Holly’s in. That was a real nail-biter. During the commercial I was thinking: They might make her sing a second song and then tell her no! They might throw acid in her face and yell, “Sic semper tyrannus!” ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN, NOT JUST THIS CRYING GIRL SINGING ANOTHER SONG AND EVERYTHING WORKING OUT FINE! After Holly gets in, my wife asks me, “How many people do they take to Hollywood?” And I realize I don’t actually know. I respond, “A million?”

The next contestant to make it through is gentle cowboy John Wayne Schulz. In a pre-audition joke-around with John Wayne’s entire family, John’s dad tells Ryan that if Ryan had been his son, Ryan maybe wouldn’t have turned out “that way.” He pretty much called him gay, right? Or does “that way” mean, like, “soft” or “Hollywood” or “hatless”? John Wayne tells us his mama made him promise her that he’d audition for Idol. It is unclear whether this promise also demanded that he and his mom wear somewhat matchy shirts, but there they are, wearing them. No parental differences here. John Wayne gets in. In the celebration that follows, Ryan’s hand gets cut by someone’s dumb, gargantuan belt buckle. It’s not clear from the footage whose it was, it could’ve been anybody’s! Okay, Texas. This has gone on long enough. You can’t have both: Hats or belt buckles, time to choose.

Courtney Penry brings some much-needed but poorly executed comedy to the show. She hams it up like a regular Roberta Benigni. She does a bunch of mugging and dancing and chicken-impressioning, and is about as funny as Steven Tyler. She gets through and I am filled with a sense of dread. Dread for the future. The future of me.

Next we meet Jacqueline Dunford and Nick Fink, who are boyfriend and girlfriend. The package that introduces them is kind of confusing; it shows them being a cutesy, loving couple, but it feels … sarcastic? Something about it — I keep thinking there’s some sort of twist coming, like who you thought was the guy was actually the girl and vice versa, but no. They are just dating each other. Jacqueline and Nick go in for their audition together, and they both make it through. We see them kiss each other several times, and though the kisses are brief, they manage to come off as EXTREMELY intimate. One of them makes me look away from the television, as if they are actually in my living room. Also, Fink is an unfortunate last name, yes? All agreed? I am always amazed that it’s hung in there for so long. Good on ya, ya FINKS.

Janelle Arthur is a country girl from America’s country. As she auditions, Ryan talks to her vast family outside, and the dad keeps nervously grabbing at the youngest daughter’s shoulders and arms, as if making sure she isn’t going to make a break for it. I guess if Janelle doesn’t make it, he’s ready to begin grooming this other kid for showbiz immediately. Inside, Janelle does a slow song, it’s nice; Tyler asks for a fast one, and everyone loves her! Hooray! Janelle is on to Hollywood, and the littlest Arthur gets to enjoy one, maybe two more years of childhood! That’s if Janelle wins the whole thing. But if she doesn’t? “Sing it again, and keep singing until I tell you to stop! The Arthur family WILL produce A STAR!”

Final contestant Casey Abrams is made to seem like a talent-free goofball in his introductory package, but actually sings really well, bringing a good measure of personality to his vocals. However. In order to make sure he starts in tune before he sings, he first blows a note into his trusty melodica. I could be wrong, but I see this instrumental dependency as a major drawback in a singing contest. I’ve never seen anyone on the show even use a pitch pipe during competition, and pitch pipes are a lot less bulky and rectangular than melodicas. Although now I am hoping he graduates to bigger and bigger pitch-helpers, and ends up in the top ten dragging a Ricola horn on stage. Oh, I bet those things have a name! Uh-oh, maybe my operation is wearing off and I will not make any more progris.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, this episode was BORING. It just never came to a boil. Perhaps tonight’s Los Angeles episode will prove to be a recapper’s delight! If not, at least we’ll get to see handprints in cement! Fingers crossed. In cement!

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX