‘American Idol’ Breaks Out The Scissors And The Kleenex

'American Idol' (Fox)

'American Idol' (Fox)

Tonight’s episode of ‘American Idol‘ was the penultimate episode of the Hollywood Round, and in an effort to make people tune into what’s normally a placeholder episode between the overly dramatic group round and the actually tense final elimination, the producers mixed things up. The two-hour show was made up of two distinct segments: First, the “ballroom round,” where the 71 remaining contestants were divided into three groups, held in hotel ballrooms for hours and then told en masse whether they’d made the second-to-last cut; and second, the final eliminations, in which we got to see just which contestants were — and weren’t — making it through to the Top 24.

Perhaps in an effort to compete with the ‘Lost‘ rerun airing on ABC from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET, the ballroom-round segments of the episode were told in flashback. “The decisions have been made,” Ryan Seacrest said gravely — even though the time on my cable box’s clock indicated that we were only about four minutes into the two-hour episode. With the assistance of increasingly somber voiceovers by Ryan, shots of the remaining contestants sitting on very ugly carpets and looking tense were intercut with their final auditions. (Really, those were some super-brash floor coverings in those rooms. You’d think the producers would have at least scattered a few bean bags in order to break up the bright, ugly patterns!)

The contestants were split into three ballrooms, with one being marked for early elimination. And the presence of one person tipped the hand as far as which room would be going home; Mary Powers, the top antagonist of the Hollywood Round’s group day, told Ryan that she had zero nerves about her final performance in front of the judges, and that she was a lock to make it through to the Top 24. If there is one lesson we have learned from ‘American Idol,’ it is that hubris in the early rounds is grounds for dismissal — particularly when it’s paired with rudeness to the contestants who she’s supposed to be working with, not to mention a pretty weak performance of Katy Perry’s “Hot N’ Cold.”

So the room that Mary was in, which also included the up-from-poverty story Hope Johnson and Bryan Walker, the police officer who auditioned with the Carpenters’ “Superstar,” was being sent home en masse. But that meant that the other two rooms were being sent through to the final round of eliminations, which unlike previous years was being held onstage at the Kodak Theatre. (Not only did this allow for an extra-long pre-judgment walk for the contestants, the producers even had the judges sitting in front of a background that was a glittery map of the United States! So cute!)

Forty-six contestants were left after Mary and the rest of her ballroommates were sent packing, and the acceptances to the Top 24 began right away. Tonight there were seven in all, and none were surprising; the first person to be put through was Michael Lynche, the personal trainer who probably could have gotten into the Top 24 on the strength of his “I’m at callbacks while my wife is in labor” backstory alone. (The five-minute package recounting his journey to the Kodak Theatre tipped the producers’ hands, on both his inevitable graduation to the Top 24 and their desperation to fill time.)

Among the other hopefuls to make it through: Casey James, the guy who took off his shirt during the Denver auditions and wowed Kara DioGuardi, got a, uh, friendly reception from the bikini-flaunting judge during the post-acceptance hugs (he already has the David Cook/Kris Allen “we like cute boys with guitars” demographic locked up); Todrick Hall, who was somewhat curtly accepted and whose incredulous “That’s… it?” was teased endlessly by the producers as an example of possible insubordination; Katelyn Epperly, whose performance of Colbie Caillat’s “Bubbly” was somewhat meh and oversung but who also has a killer backstory (her dad left her mom); and Aaron Kelly, the adorable kid who had an aesthetic straight out of the video for ‘NSync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me.”

But the show had to end on a sour note, with Jessica Furney — a 21-year-old who had also made it to Hollywood last year — getting dinged at the last minute. And for some reason the ‘Idol’ producers thought that her extended plea to Simon, Kara, Randy, and Ellen, which was basically eighteen different variations on the old “if I wear you down, you will have to let me in to the top 24… or at least grow the finalist pool to a top 25” argument. At one point she just out-and-out asked the judges what the problem was with her audition, and Simon’s answer was succinct: “You didn’t sing as well as the others.” Somehow, this kinda-burn did not dampen her pleas! Someone needs to tell this young lady that the title of the show is not ‘American Person Who Pestered The Crap Out Of The Judges In Order To Get Her Way.’

As the night closed, almost one-third of the Top 24 had been decided; five men and two women got the platinum-plated tickets that would take them to the land of Ford commercials and awkward rendezvouses with popular musicians. The Top 24, as it stands right now:
1. Didi Benami
2. Lee DeWyze
3. Katelyn Epperly
4. Todrick Hall
5. Casey James
6. Aaron Kelly
7. Michael Lynche
8-24. To be continued!!!

Wednesday night: The other 17 finalists are revealed! And thanks to the way the producers arranged things there are 10 ladies who will receive praise and a ticket to the finals, which will no doubt help prime the pump for the old “there are really a lot of strong women in this year’s contest” party line that all those people in official capacities have been parroting as of late. (Even Simon got in on the act tonight with his “There’s a lot of really strong girls this year” comment! Simon! I thought he’d be extra-impenetrable in his last year behind the judges’ table, but apparently not.)

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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