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American Idol Recap: Please, Sir, May I Have Some Less?

AMERICAN IDOL: Chicago Auditions: Contestant (Katherine "Kez Ban" Sauerbier) on AMERICAN IDOL airing Thursday, Jan. 17 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

Tonight’s show begins with some actual comedy, and it works because they just let an honest moment play. The sister of a singer is waiting outside the audition room, with an excited roomful of supporters on speakerphone. “She’s coming out! Oh my God, you guys! Here she comes!” The singer emerges from the room, the sister smothers her with hugs, the phone-speaker gets blown out from ecstatic shrieking, and then the singer reveals that she didn’t make it to Hollywood. “Oh,” says the sister. “Sorry. Oh.”

The producers of Idol can sympathize with anticlimactic entrances. The ratings are in, and oh, they are not good. Last night’s Idol premiere was the lowest-rated since season one, and while much ink will be wasted over the public’s distaste for Nicki Minaj, or our skepticism over her and Mariah’s feud, or of Keith Urban’s star power, I know the truth: These early episodes are long and enervating, and even the biggest Idol-boosters resent their time being wasted. Just because you can stretch these debut episodes to four hours a week doesn’t mean you should. You are holding us hostage, Idol. You are holding us by the ankles and shaking change out of our pockets, and we don’t like it.

Anyway, we’re in Chicago, where local bright young thing Mackenzie Wasner does a country song I’ve never heard and more or less slays it. And because they too are auditioning in a way, both Nicki and Mariah workshop some snappy wordplay to compete with Randy’s “million billion percent yes.” Nicki opts for “superstar yes,” while Mariah goes for a simple “POW.” Listen: It’s early in the season.

Also, in Chicago, they’re making the contestants exit the audition room through some kind of glittery superstar birth canal. Also also, Nicki Minaj’s face is distractingly smooth, and any RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant (even Phi Phi O’Hara!) could tell you that excessive false eyelash-ery can make a person look cross-eyed. Still: She is an interesting little sex gremlin, and I’m glad she’s in the place.  

And about that feud! The catfighting heats up a little bit tonight, but it’s hard to say who’s saying what, because Randy bellows over about 75 percent of it, and what I can hear sounds like two drag queens doing scenes from Oliver! My theory is that the producers have told them both to “mix it up,” and to them that means sighing and calling each other “bitch” every two seconds. It is imitation beef. It is beef by-product. Please, sir, may I have some less?

Kiara Lanier is unctuous, and her voice is extremely sharp, but the judges love her, so that’s that. Ditto for sleepy Stephanie Schiff. But when sweet-faced massage therapist Melissa Bush hits the scene in her bedazzled jumpsuit like some kind of aerobics instructor vigilante superhero, I know she’s in for televised humiliation. And indeed, her sluggish take on Petula Clark’s “Downtown” gets her laughed right out of the room. It is hard to watch. She is a kind soul, and I’d rather hang out with her than with any of the judges. I hope she is surrounded by loved ones tonight and that she doesn’t have a Google Alert set for herself.

An ill-defined “small-town Idol bus tour” brings us Gabe Brown, who sounds like Chris Cornell mixed with more Chris Cornell. Mariah tells him to be more subtle with his voice, which is funnier than a roomful of Melissa Bushes. You are reminded to tweet about this moment using the hashtag #idolbus for some reason. A weirdo named Kevin does Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” and the producers subtitle him, and it’s unclear whether this is a joke at Barenaked Ladies’ expense or at Weird Kevin’s, but either way it’s too late. A breathy, fresh-scrubbed young thing named Isabelle Parell enlists Keith (Keith is also here!) to sing the male parts of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and it’s so charming one can easily forget that almost every state in the union has laws against what’s going on in that song.

And then it’s time for the parade of hot boys, with whom the lady judges openly flirt. Which reminds me: As much body as Nicki and Mariah force down our eye sockets, does either one of them radiate any honest sex appeal? I’m pretty gay, but I’m also pretty confident in saying NO. The hot boy crescendo comes courtesy of serious piece of ass Griffin Peterson. His voice is passable, he shifts nervously from foot to foot, but oh, that face. Randy jabs Nicki for her interest in him: “Oh, you think he’s the next Bieber.” “Bieber don’t do this to me,” she replies. Good on her. (And it’s true. Justin Bieber is a eunuch. Have your puberties all over Griffin Peterson instead, girls of America. He is sturdy enough to handle it.)

If they are turning this season into a Nicki-versus-Mariah diva-off, I’m giving it to Nicki so far. She takes charge, she makes her cases forcefully, she comforts the malcontents. Mariah overestimates our appetite for weary, condescending sighs.

Curtis Finch is the sweetest boy in the whole wide world, and his friend is a Mariah Carey superfan. Ryan asks the friend if she can answer some Mariah trivia, and his first question is “What’s her favorite color?” She answers “purple,” and Ryan reveals that he has no idea whether that’s true or false. I would guess that it is neither. Does anyone other than a child have a favorite color? Does anyone other than an entertainment journalist ever ask such a question? Anyway, Curtis is through, his friend gets to meet Mariah, and it’s momentarily, accidentally nice.

Mariah Pulice has recently emerged from her struggle with anorexia, and she tells her story with such passion and clarity, it almost can’t get fucked up in the editing, but God knows they try. She is good! She is through. She might be my favorite.

Day two brings us Brandi Neelly, who was taken in by her aunt and uncle after her birth parents proved too immature to care for her properly. And her take on “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is good enough to ensure that two grifters will swoop in mid-season and try to adopt her back, like Rooster and Lily in Annie. Also on to the next round: youth-worship-leader-y Josh Holiday! Paris Bennett–y Courtney Williams! Stompy Andrew Jones! And Clifton Duffin, whose parents have somehow never heard him sing and who choose the Idol audition room as their first helping. Neglect has never seemed so sweet.

Handsome Johnny Keyser is back for a second year in a row, and he seems to have been doing some kind of jawline curls since we saw him last. He’s through!

Fire performer Kez Ban is pretty business-savvy for someone who has almost certainly been to Burning Man. She immediately says, “If there is any possibility that I’m going to be in the blooper reel, or in any other way embarrass my family, I will leave now.” I’d say the family of a fire performer is permanently inoculated against embarrassment, but what do I know? She has severe makeup and a jaw that puts Johnny Keyser to shame, and when she opens her mouth to sing, I am as surprised as anyone that she is actually pretty fucking great. She is through! This might be a good thing, as she might just be looking for a lift out to California.

We close with Lazero Arbos, a Cuban boy with a fuchsia clip-on bow tie, a debilitating stammer that disappears when he sings, and a lovely voice that gets him through and gets me worked up all emotional. I seem to remember one of our commenters blowing the lid off this guy once his face hit the Idol promos a few months ago, so I’d say the comments section of these recaps is about to become the place to be. Dive in.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX