Idol Beat: Orlando Is Far from the Magic Kingdom

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Last night's American Idol was the fourth audition episode of Season 9 (and if you think we're almost done with the cattle-call phase, you are in for a broken heart). I cannot stress enough the unreality of the show and the brilliant way it uses editing to mess with the viewer's concept of time. The open call was on July 9 last year, and the two-day callback - the one that becomes the episode - was the end of August. That gap allows for many things, including the opportunity to shoot remote pieces of the contestants' home lives, by which I mean the home lives of the people who will win a ticket to the next round in Hollywood. But it also makes the extreme reactions of some of the losers make more sense. After all, they probably figured they had a good chance of winning; they got a callback, right? The auditions were in Orlando this time, where 10,000 people showed up to be whittled down by producers. The episode did everything it could to evoke the Disney vibe of the locality without actually paying the money to name the company: Much was made by Ryan Seacrest of how this is the town where "dreams come true," and he offered viewers greetings from "the happiest place in the world." They even played "When You Wish Upon a Star," which apparently isn't owned by Disney but Bourne Co. Music Publishers. Oh, Idol, you slippery mistress.

Simon, Kara and Randy were partnered with guest judge Kristin Chenoweth for half the tryouts, which were the typical mix of blandly talented people, genuinely skilled singers, and total nutbars. The first singer of the episode was this wackadoo guy with mirror fragments on his face that gave me a really scary Red Dragon flashback, but his appearance was worth it just to see Ryan's cautious tiptoeing with the singer's friends who came along to support him.

The guy is gay, as are his friends, but Ryan can't exactly go outing people or making assumptions on TV, so while he and the friends are waiting in the lobby, Ryan looks at the girl and asks, "Are you his ..." and lets her place "friend" in the awkward silence. It was fantastic.

The winners were the same kind of unsurprising characters you see on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. There was Samuel, the 28-year-old husband and father who had a son with autism and needed to win the show to try and get money for better medical care. There was Shelby, a beautiful girl whose facial nerve has been damaged since birth, leaving her unable to move the right edge of her mouth; her singing voice was beautiful and nervous, and you knew she'd make the cut even if you hadn't seen the shamelessly manipulative taped piece before she auditioned.

And there was Matt, a bear of a guy who did time in juvey for attempted bank robbery and absolutely killed a version of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble." They all earned their tickets to Hollywood, but they did so as much for their character-ness as their skills. The show is about selling myths, and that gets easier when contestants bring their own tragedy into the room.

There were also the more predictable winners - I had a hunch the leggy blonde in hot pants singing "House of the Rising Sun" would do okay - and, of course, the sad sacks and crazies. A guy named Jay sang "Come Together" while beatboxing, which is no easy feat. He was no Rahzel, but he made it anyway. There were the sisters from New Jersey, which sounds like a movie I'm not old enough to see, and despite Simon's reservations, they both made it.

And of course, because why not, there was a psycho named Jared who didn't make the cut and had to be forcibly removed by security after he refused to leave. Sure, he was terrible, and had no shot at all to make it as a singer. But maybe, you know, getting a callback messed with his head. Are we supposed to be surprised that toying with the emotions of the unstable ends this way? Come on.

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