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Paul F. Tompkins Recaps the Kickoff of American Idol’s Hollywood Week

Welcome back to all of you who’ve stuck it out with me since the beginning. And a special welcome to all of you new readers, the cowards who didn’t have the emotional fortitude to suffer through the audition episodes! Please collect your feathers in the comments section. Four each.

At last, it’s Hollywood week! 327 contestants will parade across the stage, but only none of them can justify this arbitrary number of people. 327? This truly is idiotic. A flat hundred would have been overkill. But okay, you need a ton of people to drag the show out, I get it. Let’s say I spot you an extra couple hundred people. Do you really need the final TWENTY-SEVEN?

As all of the excited young hopefuls file in, Randy advises them to “bring it hard.” I love when show-business people try to get all sports-sounding. “Bring it hard!” They’re still gonna sing Edwin McCain songs, right? They don’t even have to move. There’s so much fake drama in this show it could give you the fake vapors.

During this phase, we get to see the familiar faces from the audition episodes under a lot more pressure. Because now the contestants are told they have to be extra good! They just have one shot — one shot — at moving on to the next round! Maybe if so many of them hadn’t been given two shots or just been allowed through because they cried at the auditions, there wouldn’t be so much pressure to sift through 327 mostly bad singers. Right? Does that make sense? Well, far be it from me to tell you how to run your decade-old multi-million-dollar franchise.

The first Kotter to be welcomed back is flame-haired Brett Lowenstern, who sings “Let It Be” with the hardest "R"s I’ve heard since Ralph Fiennes played a U.S. senator in Maid in Manhattan. Brett’s in, and celebrates by forgiving anyone who’s ever picked on him in a very unconvincing display of “letting it go.” Brett, you haven’t won anything yet. Save some up. Then we see the lovably Seth Rogen–ian Casey Abrams breeze through. As he leaves the stage, is that? — yes! — we catch a glimpse of his trusty pitch-dowsing rod, the melodica. Seriously, is this going to be a part of his approach for as long as he’s in the contest? I imagine it's just because he’s singing a cappella now and doesn’t have perfect pitch, but it’d be so entertaining if he needs it even in the presence of a live band backing him. Because then it just means he’s crazy and thinks that the melodica says encouraging stuff to him. Like those Frosted Mini-Wheats commercials.

Up next is someone I have not been looking forward to seeing: Victoria Huggins, the Sliding Doors version of Jon-Benet Ramsey. We are briefly reminded of Victoria’s Shirley Temple redux “charms” before she sings and does not make it through. She later tearfully declares herself “North Carolina’s American Idol.” She has just identified herself as a secessionist. Shame.

Now, put your waterworks on standby, because we’re about to hear from two contestants from the “very special” division. Paris Tassin (mother of a special-needs child) and James Durbin (special-needs dad of standard-needs child) both get through. Can you imagine how terrible it would be if they got cut, and how terrible it will be when they definitely do get cut in a couple of weeks’ time?

Stormi Henley, the former Miss Teen USA contestant, reaffirmed the bad decision to let her get this far by going no further. Later she says to the camera, “You had to have a really spectacular voice and I couldn’t do anything about that.” Well, there you go. This whole thing is rigged or something. What you required of Stormi isn’t Stormily possible, judges. Or maybe you can’t hear her on your high horses! What with her thin voice!

I hope you treated yourself to the super-soft Puffs this week, because Chris Medina’s back. You remember Chris Medina: the kid whose wheelchair-bound girlfriend was hugssaulted by the judges last week. Chris makes it through. His girlfriend keeps her distance.

On to some early favorited youngsters: Chubbieber Jacee Badeaux, Robbie Rosen the “New York–ish” (you know what I mean) contestant, and recovering crybaby Hollie Cavanaugh all sail through. Hollie, especially, seems vastly more confident than she did when, at her audition, she cried at the idea that she might not be quite ready for superstardom at 17. Now that the stakes are higher, I hope she has some sort of mega-bawl she can deploy if necessary.

There’s a little break in the action, so let’s … Oh my GOD, I completely forgot about the product placement. Not the ever-present Coca-Cola cups and such, but the integrated ads from the sponsors, which require these kids to tool around in Ford Focuses and talk about how mind-blowing the cars are, as if these kids had been transported here from Colonial times. “So fast! But where do you feed it the oats?”

Remember former couple Chelsee and Rob? And remember too-couply couple Nick and Jacqueline? The hour has come to see if they’ll be separated (or separated even further as the case may be). Chelsee and Rob are in — and I will admit that I think Chelsee sang much better this time — and so is Jacqueline, but Nick doesn’t get through. Aw. Nick begs for a second chance. Um. Nick starts to walk out, then turns and threateningly yell-sings at the judges’ backs from a few yards away. Uh-oh. The judges tell him it’s still a no. Good precedent-setting, judges! Angrily singing with tears in your eyes from a distance will NOT help! And there were plenty of witnesses! Later, in Ryan Seacrest’s venting lounge, Nick accuses Ryan of being emotionally dead because this injustice hasn’t shaken Ryan to his core. Ryan issues a non-denial denial. Hey, Nick. Don’t be so sad. Based on her performance tonight, you and Jacqueline will be reunited before too long.

Scotty McCreery and Jackie Wilson make it to the next round by singing what they sang at their auditions: two forgettable songs from the genres of country and non-country. Jerome Bell also re-gifted, although in the bigger theater, this week’s rendition of “Let’s Get It On” sounded more like a suggestion and less like a command yelled during a bank robbery.

Until she appeared on the screen right this very second, I had completely forgotten about (slightly) upscale Snooki Tiffany Rios, much less that she passed her audition, yet here she is, existing and about to sing. Tiffany, her hair full of glitter or cake dragees, declares to one and all that she is “sick of seeing people try to do what I know I can.” She screeches for a few moments and passes, purely for television purposes. The producers must think she seems likely to throw a punch in a group situation. I bet they’re right! But if they want that kind of dynamic, why not just say so, so we don’t have to listen to her sing? Couldn’t they just have told us, “This year, we’re trying something different. We’re mixing in a few people who want to be famous and are unpredictably violent. We don’t ultimately know how they’ll affect the contest, but keep your arms up.”

And finally, a sad note. Bronx-born Travis Orlando seemingly forgot how to sing well this week. He is cast from the presence of the judges, and lo, he is banished to the land from whence he came, where the payphones hang from their cords, swaying, always swaying. Yea, swaying in the wind that surely must be the soft breath of the sad sighs of God.

See you next week!

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX