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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins on Homecomings and Disasters, Both Natural and Show-Related

The show fake-dramas us right off the bat, with various clips of the judges praising the top three, and Jimmy Iovine throwing his two cents in on video for good measure. Video Jimmy’s big prediction for the finale? “There’ll be a guy in it.” Why are we still going through this pointless exercise? And I don’t mean American Idol. I mean life.

The show begins, and in the crowd we see many of this season’s Fallen Idols! There’s Paul! And Casey! Also Jacob! Plus Naima! Additionally Thia! Ashthon is another! Pia, okay! I believe Stefano was on the show! And thanks for adding MySpace’s Karen Rodriguez! I expected to see them all next week, I guess, for a “taste of the tour,” but perhaps they’re here because this will be the last night of suspense before Scotty wins.

Ryan reveals there were 95 million votes last night, the most in Idol history! At this point in the competition, that is. Remember that one year they had one billion votes, and it was all to make sure the Green River Killer didn’t make it into the top nine? Why didn’t they just arrest him while he was there? Ah, that’s for history to figure out, I guess. I liked when he sang “Close to You,” though. Ryan throws to a package and gives it very little introduction, just that last week the top four were sent on a mission. The top four? Wait, why am I seeing James? It feels weird to see him! I know the fate of this Video James! I am uncomfortable watching this ignorant James of the past because of my secret knowledge of his future. Well, there isn’t any time for my feelings, as usual, because the mission is revealed: to meet film and television bigwig J.J. Abrams. The kids meet Jayj at his production company, Bad Robot, and have to stand around in the lobby with their Bad Robot giveaway T-shirts slung over their shoulders. I am not trying to tell Bad Robot how to run their business, but maybe give your visiting dignitaries the swag at the end of the tour, so they don’t have to carry them around while you show them the original model of Cloverfield. J. Jab then welcomes the kids in to a screening room, so they can take part in promoting their host’s new film, Super 8. Thanks to night-vision cameras, we get to watch the kids watch a couple of scenes from the movie. We do not get to see all the scenes the kids see, presumably; we get to see the stuff you can already see in the trailer, which is the promise of things happening. Can you imagine if this results show were only a half-hour? If you can, start doing so, because maybe your imagination will drift away to something more interesting than watching people watch a movie you can’t actually watch. When the lights come up, the kids are thrilled to have seen this footage, so much so they seem to be verging on distraught. As a reward for being entertained, Jabrams gives the kids super 8 cameras of their very own! He’s like the Willy Wonka of obsolete technology.

Back in the studio, Ryan takes up the burden of promoting Super 8. Look, Idol is a family, and everyone must do their part. Ry chats with one of the stars of the film, Elle Fanning. I do not hear a word she says because I am looking only behind her, transfixed by just how much Priscilla Presley is not looking at the camera.

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She will not even look at Elle Fanning speaking, for fear she will … make eye contact with … the camera? It’s just weird. Maybe Priscilla Presley is on the lam, and thought the most logical place to disappear would be a television studio where they are broadcasting a gigantic hit TV show. Elle Fanning giggles that her 6-year-old cousin has picked Scotty to win the contest! Great work, Fanning family. First I Am Sam, then Somewhere, and now this.

Well, we must bid Elle and Priscilla a fond Super 8, because it’s time for the famous Top Three Home Invasions or whatever Ryan called them last week. We start with Haley heading home to Wheeling, Illinois. We find Haley as she’s just stepped out of the airport, and she curses up a storm when she realizes she’s walking the wrong way and then that her ride is a stretch Hummer limo. But honestly, how is she unable to immediately identify this emblem of disgusting excess as part of the production? Especially considering it has a gigantic American Idol decal on the side. Judy Abruscato declares it to — what do you mean, “Who’s Judy Abruscato?” Der, she’s the president of Wheeling, Illinois! Anyway, Judy declar — what do you mean, “What does that mean, ‘president of Wheeling, Illinois’?” That’s who Judy Abruscato is!

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Any more pointless questions, Helen Thomas? God.

Haley signs people’s shirts and hands and one girl’s broken fingers. Maybe later she signs a clipboard belonging to a member of the Child Services team that I hope showed up off-camera. Once Haley’s back in the belly of the limo, we see … the off-duty bouncer from the last couple of weeks! He turns out to be Aaron, from Idol security. Jokes are made about Aaron perhaps crying as a result of being surrounded by so much emotion. But see, Aaron is a huge scary-looking guy, so that’s quite impossible. Science. Haley is police escorted to her home where she is reunited with her parents, whom she hasn’t seen since every single week she’s been on the show. Overall, she is handling this really well for a 20-year-old. She is clearly touched by the outpouring of love and support, but she comports herself like a professional entertainer. I cannot even begin to imagine what an asshole I was at 20, and I wasn’t famous or attractive. I was barely loved. Look, things are good now; I’m not trying to bum anyone out. I got it together. Anyway, Haley does a concert at a racetrack for 30,000 people (moving more tickets than J.Lo, interesting) and sings “Sweet Home Chicago” with her family. My family would have done Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” but every family concert has its own setlist.

Back in the studio, we are treated to some comedy when Aaron from Idol security, hearing Haley talk of the bittersweet feelings of being back home, feigns some emotional weeping, going so far as to dab at his eyes with some Kleenex-brand tear-absorbing tissues! You get this, right? You understand that big people don’t have emotions? This is how comedy works. Hey, I don’t have time to hold your hand though this, I’ve got stuff to do. I mean, I’m no Judy Abruscato, but I’m plenty busy, believe me. Let me just say that Aaron actually did a pretty good job of pretending to cry.

Back from a break, Ryan has an adorable little girl help him introduce the motherfucking FORD MUSIC VIDEOOOOOOOOOO! Scotty, Lauren, and Haley drive around in a Ford and take vacation pictures on a beach to the tune of some song called “Smile” that I’ve never heard before. I have heard many other songs called “Smile,” sure, just not this one. How is that allowed, by the way? Come on, songwriters. These are Internet times. Make sure there aren’t 50 other existing songs with the name you’re thinking of for your song before you name your song. Back to the video! The Ford enables you to watch your home videos in your dashboard, just to the right of your steering wheel. God, we finally got everybody to go along with seat belts. Maybe this video-screen-in-the-driver’s-sightline idea is “ahead of its time.”

Back in the studio, Ryan then introduces Il Volo. Who or what? They are apparently a very popular singing group in Europe. Fair enough. Then my life changes forever as I see Il Volo for the first time. Okay. How do I begin to describe Il Volo? Il Volo are three Italian youngsters and none of them could possibly be over four feet tall. Oh, I’m sorry, where are my manners? Here’s a photo:

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The middle guy looks like Weeds star Justin Kirk morphing into Doogie Howser, MD’s Vinnie Delpino. The guy on the left looks like Andy Samberg portraying Rachel Maddow. And the guy on the right looks like Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines as Jerry O’Connell in Stand By Me. Even their own viola player is nonplussed by their very existence.

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I am just trying to comprehend what I’m looking at when these magical beings start singing, and their voices are, of course, deep and gigantic in a classic Rick Astleyan deception. Il Volo launch into everyone’s favorite international public domain classic, “O Sole Mio.” I hope their album also includes “Cockles & Mussels” and “Frère Jacques.” I cannot describe to you the delight Il Volo bring me. I laugh through their entire performance, not really out of mockery, but out of … I don’t know what. There is something about watching these guys do what they do that is indescribably hilarious to me. It’s like they’re not real people, they are puppets come to life or something. You must believe that I am honestly not trying to make fun of them. Except earlier, when I clearly was. Please find this performance online and you will see what I mean.

Back from the break, Andchel Maddowberg has switched glasses with Randy! So what! They wear glasses! I get it! You can’t follow a big tough guy having a feeling, don’t even try! Now it’s time to follow Scotty home to Garner, North Carolina. We see Scotty push through a crowd of adoring fans. Someone hands him a doughnut, and he immediately starts eating it. My mind wanders as I imagine Scotty has just been dosed, and he will soon embark on a drug-fueled journey of enlightenment, renouncing religion and modern country, strolling shirtless through the streets of Garner and awakening his followers to a new Eden, where there is more than one genre of music. Back to reality: Like Haley, Scotty is chauffeured around in a stretch SUV limo, but his is white. This small difference renders this monstrosity 1,000 times more revolting than the other one. Scotty revisits his old (current?) high school (oh, a magnet school, excuse me) where he plays a little baseball like decent Americans do, all of you with phones and a willingness to vote. In the school’s hallway, Scotty smiles with pride at a poster of him that is displayed just as prominently as the “Ban on Weapons” notice. That’s how you know you’ve arrived, in modern times. Then a genuinely touching moment happens as Scotty is overcome by all of it and sobs as he leaves the school, crying heartily in the limo. I actually get choked up, although it’s not quite that miraculous. I’m an easy cry. I once turned on the TV as it was playing the last ten minutes of Mr. Holland’s Opus, a movie I’d never seen: I’m so conditioned by this manipulative stuff that even though I didn’t know who any of the characters were or what had happened in the film, I cried at the part that was supposed to make you cry. Back to the show. Then Scotty heads to a grocery store, and I say out loud, “Why isn’t the crying in the limo the last thing we see? You can’t top that moment. This is awful editing.” My wife shrugs and says, “Maybe he cries harder in the grocery store.” Well, he doesn’t. But I’ll tell you who does: a young Scotty fan who is doing that thing that young girls of a certain age do, weeping rapturously over a boy singer, feeling every emotion possible in the presence of this cute, nonthreatening young man.

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Look at that face. I realize that any time I’ve seen this reaction — to the Beatles, to the Jonas Brothers, to Scotty — I’ve felt a little pang of jealousy; I know for a fact that though I’ve felt great joy and crushing sadness, I’ve never experienced the specific demolition derby of emotions that these girls have. Well, at least men still make more money. So. Scotty does his concert. Josh Turner, the guy who sings the nameless song that goes, “Baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low,” surprises Scotty onstage as Scotty is singing that very song! In a double-take worthy of Lou Costello meeting the Wolf Man, Scotty senses the presence of someone behind him, turns around and puts his hand on Josh’s shoulder in greeting, then absorbs what he is seeing and runs away. It is worth rewinding twice. Scotty closes out his concert by promising to work his tail off and bring back the title of American Idol for Garner. Everyone cheers! This kid is definitely going to run for office someday, and he will win.

Back at home base, it’s time for a performance by Nicole Scherzinger, the last surviving Pussycat Doll. Nicole favors us with some forgettable club wallpaper called “Right There.” The performance doesn’t exactly suffer from too much fantastic singing. It’s pretty much all dancing, and it’s preeeeeetty strippery. 50 Cent appears on some steps, accompanied by the loudest cloud of steam — seriously, was this effect supposed to be so loud? And if the volume of this steam burst was approved, was it supposed to go for a full minute? They might as well be on a subway platform for how much the quality of sound is a priority. The whole thing seems terribly low rent. Hey, Idols! This is what you’re aiming for! This sort of artistry! Do you have what it takes?

Back from the break, we go home to Rossville, Georgia, with Lauren. Greeting a throng of lustily cheering fans in front of a cell-phone store, Lauren autographs some stuff. Some of the signs the kids are holding up have the AT&T logo on them, and I spend close to a minute trying to determine if the logos are supposed to look as if the kids themselves drew them on the signs, or if the logos were preprinted on the placards the kids used to make their signs. Then I realize, at $15 a word, I’m not being paid enough to do this kind of corporate ethics investigation, so I let it drop. Then it’s on to Lauren’s high school. As Representative Jay Neal of the Georgia House of Representatives declares it to be Lauren Alaina Day (a representative isn’t a village president, but it’s still pretty impressive, I guess). Lauren’s cancer friend from auditions reappears! Oh, everyone’s back! It’s like the end of a Wes Anderson movie! Then, Lauren tours the devastation wrought by the recent tornadoes in the region, as is Lauren Alaina Day tradition. It’s pretty horrible stuff. Martina McBride’s “Anyway” plays as Lauren weeps at the wreckage, and the song seems to get just a little louder on the line “one storm can come and blow it all away.” This almost seems exploitative. Lauren ends her tour by going to meet a kid who saved his whole family during one of the tornadoes. Lauren greets him by asking, “Are you the little hero?” And this cocky little shit answers, “Yes.” So full of himself! Lauren does her concert and sings “Anyway.” I think I get it.

Back in the studio, Lauren and Ryan, a fellow Georgian, talk for a second about their personal sadness at seeing the aftermath of this natural disaster. Whelp, time for results! The lights are dimmed. The three remaining contestants join hands. Ryan throws to commercial. Lauren looks betrayed, Scotty looks smug, and Haley laughs ruefully at this classic Seacrest chicanery.

And we’re back. The lights are re-dimmed. Ryan reiterates that more people voted than ever before. Have voted at this point in the contest. Ryan does not want to get bogged down in statistics. He announces that Scotty is safe. At least they spared us that bit of bad theater. Scotty, “relieved,” takes his place atop one of those “golden” stools. Ryan says he will tell us who is going into the finale.

RESULTS. Lauren is in. I yell — I yell — “OH NO!” Out loud, all the way out. Haley is dumbfounded. Lauren’s expression is not the usual expression you see on this show at this moment. There’s no rush of relief, no stunned discovery. She looks like she got an expensive gift she’d asked for and was reasonably sure she was going to get; actually seeing it unwrapped brought her the joy of confirmation and the thrill of possession.

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Lauren turns to Haley, whose face is nakedly, angrily disappointed. Haley looks frustrated. She doesn’t even look in Lauren’s direction, and Lauren doesn’t make a move in her direction. A hug always happens here. But the absence of affection between Lauren and Haley is two feet wide and three feet thick. It dawns on me that Lauren wasn’t turning to Haley when she won, she was turning to Ryan to celebrate, and Haley was in the way. It seems like an eternity before a perfunctory embrace between the two girls takes place. As the judges give Haley a standing ovation, Steven Tyler is the only one who looks remorseful. Randy and J.Lo seem to project … I don’t know, exactly. “We told you so?” But I like Steven for looking as if something bad happened here. Wrapping things up with Ryan, Haley follows the new tradition of briefly bragging (“I rocked it out”) and then closes the show with “Benny and the Jets.” She has gathered herself after the initial shock, and, in the first verse of “Benny and The Jets,” a song I do not even like that much, she entertains me more than Lauren has with her entire catalogue of performances to date. Haley goes down and sings with the other Fallen Idols, and ends up going out on a note of good humor and dignity. I will sorely miss Haley next week, and not just because she would have sung something other than modern country. I will miss the surprise she would have brought to the last night of performance before Scotty wins this stupid contest.

Talking to my wife and expressing my frustration with having to watch and write about what will most certainly be a mind-numbingly boring fifteen hours of two children singing interchangeable songs on Tuesday, I say, “I hate that I got even this invested. It’s not like I’m gonna buy Haley’s album when it comes out.” My wife replied, “Who knows what it’ll be? Maybe she’ll turn out to be a great artist.” And you know what? Maybe she will! Who knows what she’ll do on her own, with original material?

Haley, you are all right in my book. And here’s a message to all tweens and grandmas out there, the ones who put Scotty and Lauren in the finale: go fuck yourselves.

See you next week.

You can listen to Paul F. Tompkins's podcast here, or subscribe on iTunes. He is also on Twitter as @PFTompkins.

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX