Ryan's intro tonight is laced with superlatives: "The most sought-after title in television history," "the most intense week of their lives," "the best singers in the country," "this judging panel...will accept only the very best," and "shocking eliminations that will shake you to the core." Okay, that last one was hyperbole rather than a superlative, but you get the idea: it's Hollywood week, when the contestants will be winnowed down to twenty guys and twenty girls. Would that it were only a week.
Montage of people being awakened by their parents to go to Hollywood, because if they weren't living with their parents, they wouldn't have auditioned in the first place. Planes, LAX, buses, hotel rooms, and a few score of uniformly excited and variously deluded people, all of whom are cut loose to stand on the stage marveling in awe. Ryan points out something unusual about this batch: it's only males. Damn, Frank Herbert's White Plague has struck American Idol! No, it's just that the female contestants will be covered next week. See, already the "Hollywood Week" thing is exposed as a lie.
The judges show up, and from the stage they address the one section of auditorium seats that's actually occupied before getting things going. This early on, there's no fine-tuning; guys will come out in groups of ten and take turns singing a capella for the judges, sudden-death style. And to add to the pressure, the contestants' families are up in the balcony. Ryan doesn't say that the losers' loved ones will be dropped through a trap door to certain maiming, but the implication is clear.
The first group includes Micah Johnson, the guy from the Long Beach audition with a nerve-damage-caused speech impediment. Again, it disappears when he sings, "Benny and the Jets" this time. Keith gives him a standing ovation and everything. Now Ryan tells us that he has to wait until the rest of the line sings before they all hear the decision. I guess he did say "sudden death," not "instant death," so my bad. A few more guys I don't remember also sing, as though to build suspense, but obviously Micah is through, as well as the other three guys we heard. And then so do some more guys, like Nate Tao, shouty mop-head Gabe Brown (who earns more standing ovations from the audience), and Gupreet Singh Sarin, otherwise known as The Turbanator for his trademark headwear. It's like he's the only Sikh on network television or something.
Then we're reintroduced to Karl Skinner, an already energetic spaz who outlines the lengths to which he's already unnecessarily over-caffeinated himself this morning. So he should be good as long as he doesn't go into V-tach. He sings "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," which now that I think about it should be this show's theme song. Some hairy weirdoes make him seem like a shoo-in by comparison, but he's gone. So is Dustin Watts, the firefighter from Baton Rouge who looks better than he sounds, and Dr. Calvin Peters, who is going to continue being a singing doctor rather than becoming a singer who used to be a doctor. Then Cortez Shaw uncorks a high-volume version of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" that he hasn't even bothered to change the key on. There seems to be some disagreement among the judges, so that'll have to be milked for maximum drama. Which of course means a commercial break right here.
Coming back, Ryan editorializes that Cortez made a "poor" song choice, so now there are nine other dudes in his line waiting for the judges to make up their mind about him before they can get on with their lives. Mariah says she enjoyed him. Nicki interjects to say he did "a poor job, and I was very, very disgusted by it." Whoa, too soon for Nicki. "You ain't Whitney," adds Randy, always good for an unnecessary interjection. Randy says it wasn't unanimous, but Cortez is still in. And don't do that again.
Choir director Curtis Finch, Jr. impresses the judges again, as does subway busker Frankie Ford. Lazaro Arbos from the Chicago auditions comes to the stage, and we're reminded of his sad story in his own words. Which, given the stutter he lives with, helps fill a lot of airtime. I bet the editors love him; he utters one sentence and they've gone most of a minute without having to make a cut. And then of course he launches into song, a Robbie Williams one this time, and kills it. Ryan's narration remarks on Lazaro's visible flop-sweat during brief clips of other guys in his line before we learn that he's moving on to the next round. The next group includes some unfamiliar faces but decent voices, like Trevor Blakney, Bryant Tadeo, and Charles Allen, all of whom skate though, except Bryant. That's because Nicki rakes him over the coals, getting him to admit he's tired before saying they're sending him home to sleep. Psych! She's kidding. He's not only gotten passage to the next round, he's gotten a valuable lesson in never admitting you're tired.
At 7:00 PM, the day's about to close out with a line that includes Brian Rittenberry, the burly country singer from the Charlotte auditions with the not-dead-from-cancer wife. It's not unanimous for Bryan either, but Mariah says, "For now, the whirlwind has to end here." It's going to be a very bad week for Brian if his wife's cancer comes back.
So we're already on to the group round. "It's the most demanding and strenuous night of the competition," Ryan narrates, which, along with clips of some of the most fraught moments of these rounds from past seasons, reminds us that this is always a mess. He adds that some guys started forming themselves into groups as soon as they found out they were safe. And yes, that sound you hear is God and the American Idol producers laughing, because producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick announce to the assembled survivors that for the first time, they're assigning people to groups -- irrevocably. People are called up onstage, grouped off, and assigned a list of twenty songs to choose from that everyone in each group has to agree on. Poor Lazaro has to not only struggle through introducing himself, he doesn't know a lot of the songs on the list, being Cuban and all, so that narrows down his group's options. Meanwhile, Army Sergeant Trevor Blakney and Lee Pritchard, possible two of the reddest necks the producers could find, have been thrown together with the two gayest guys in the house, but are flexible enough to be open to something like "Moves Like Jagger." Looking at Trevor's physique, however, I suspect that's where his flexibility will end.
Then there's another group called the Couch Potatoes, made up of socially awkward Charlie Askew with gospel singers Curtis Finch, Jr and Nick Mathis. They're off to a slow start, but other groups are already at work with vocal coaches, including the group that includes Johnny Keyser from last year. The group that includes Gupreet, as well as some guys named Mark and Chris and a kid named Peter, are a little slow picking a song, but quickly come up with the group name "Three Men and a Baby" for themselves. Other groups are shown rehearsing everyplace they can find a few square feet, while another group is tensely debating changing songs at this point.
The night drags on, people begin to collapse where they stand, and at 4:00 AM, the group known as "Country Queen" (scan up a few paragraphs and you'll know exactly who I mean) is dealing with Trevor's unfamiliarity with the lyrics, which he's wishing they would work on rather than choreography. And he's also generally acting like a big whiny baby and preferring to waste time bitching rather than resolving anything. Clearly he's part of the "Army of One" generation of recruits.
The morning of group performance round dawns all too soon, at 6:35 AM. Hurried, bleary primping ensues in the hotel bathrooms, and the judges show up looking obnoxiously fresh and alert. Ryan reminds us that members of each group will be judged individually on the spot, to either get the immediate axe or be allowed to move on to the solo round. The day is starting