Last night's American Idol took the auditions to Dallas (or, more accurately, Arlington) for the sixth open-call episode of the season to date. The show seemed to be hold Dallas in high regard: It's where Kelly Clarkson was discovered in the first season back in 2002, so there's a sense that Dallas, in addition to offering a disproportionate amount of Chili's and Starbucks outposts, could produce the next Idol winner. The singers who made the cut last night weren't jaw-dropping, but then, probably nobody figured Kelly would win when they saw her the first time, either.
The best part of the episode was the way it confirmed Simon Cowell's skill for turning people into characters. He's not in the business of creating or even shepherding talent; he's out to sell records, and if the performer happens to be gifted, that's a bonus. Randy works from the gut, Kara blathers on in a vaguely New Age way, but Simon always judges an audition based on a mix of talent and commercial viability. For instance, one of the winners last night was a guy with Tourette syndrome, which manifested itself in small coughs to clear the throat every few seconds. He had a nice voice, to boot. He got the green light from all four judges, but Simon's comment was the sharpest: "I think people are gonna like you." You can always give a kid voice lessons, but if they aren't relatable, you're sunk.
The episode featured the expected stereotypical opening montage, complete with the horses Texans apparently ride to work every day on the ranch, or if they just want to form a posse. The backing music was "God Blessed Texas," a horrible song I'd forgotten ever existed, released in 1993 by Little Texas. The song is actually a weird vortex for the episode's content: Little Texas was formed in Arlington, where the auditions were held, and the track has also been used in Ford commercials in certain Texas markets, and Ford is a major sponsor for Idol. It's like the song was breathed into being by whatever demons are responsible for words like "branding" and "synergistic."
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Anyway: 11,000 people showed up to Cowboys Stadium in June, and the select few that made the August callback were visited by guest judges Neil Patrick Harris and Joe Jonas. Harris' charisma and personality are so far beyond Jonas' in terms of entertainment that it's not worth getting into. He was funny and kind of sarcastic, which is either how he really is or how he wanted to be based on the characters he's played, but either way, it worked. "If I can make two, three dozen people cry, I feel like I've done my job," he told Ryan. He needs to be on more things.
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As is apparently the rule, the show opened with a guaranteed loser, a girl named Julie who tanked her audition eight years ago in Dallas and is back to try again. I'm sure the callback messed with her hopes, but still, you knew from the get-go that she wouldn't have it. Most singers that make the final edit manage to keep it together while they're being told how bad they are, but though Julie didn't cry, the look on her face as the judges laughed at her was wrenching. Yes, she's a little deluded, but deserving of a scolding in front of 25 million people? Sometimes this show is like "Jaywalking," and I mean that in every bad way possible.
The first winner of the night was a big guy named Lloyd who wanted to show his two kids that it's possible to get out of the projects and achieve your dreams. This is not a bad sentiment, but any question as to whether he'd make it was answered when his taped bio began to roll. I mean, look, I get that reality TV as a genre is pretty free of suspense, but this is ridiculous. If a singer gets a brief piece shot at the audition site, they will lose; if they get a narrated biographical sketch about their home life, they will win. Surely the singers know this by now. If you make it through the cattle call and are then told the producers want to come to your house to film you and your family eating, wouldn't you figure victory was set in stone? Maybe the winners are acting. Who knows.
The winners included a cancer survivor, a teacher, and a former child actor from Barney and Friends; the losers featured a very hyper woman and a few other unstable people who never stood a chance. There's one more audition episode like this one -- Denver -- and then a compilation about the "best of the rest," which is so lazy I can't believe they waited this long to slot it. We're almost at the end of the beginning.