Idol Beat: The "Best of the Rest," Or So Fox Says

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Last night's American Idol was a clip show, plain and simple. Nothing else going on at all. Granted, every cattle-call audition episode can feel like a clip show, with an endless run of short, forgettable stories placed one after the other. But last night's installment didn't even pretend to be anything else. It was just unused clips of singers from every audition city that we've already seen this season, and as such it looked like a normal episode but felt like so much less.

The losers were the worst kind of caricatures, even for American Idol. I'm thinking especially of the 6-foot-8 boy who was shaped like a triangle and sang in a lofty tenor. He was one of the people brought back to be puzzled over, and even the montage before his audition turned his claim of being a "blossoming flower" into a sad joke. (He was also one of the few to get a taped intro despite having no shot at all of making it to the next round.) I mean really, even pretending that these sad people bring something to the show, why spend another hour finding more of them? What's the point?

The episode spent even more time dealing with the kind of tragic stories you normally find on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Kids who grew up poor, kids who barely survived birth, etc., etc. There seemed to be more winners than usual for an audition episode, which was likely a calculated move designed to accomplish two things: make the show feel hopeful and optimistic before the next set of grueling cuts, and try to sell the show as a happy place to make dreams come true instead of the divisive competition of its early seasons, which reveled too much in the rejection of the untalented. But the show can't have it both ways. You can't be solely about talented people taking a chance if you also want to be about screwing with those deluded few who should kindly be told to do something else.

There were a few impressive winners last night, though. They're all starting to blur together after four weeks, but there was a huge personal trainer with a sweet voice, and an earthy blonde who sang Janis Joplin. But really, there's no point bothering to remember or get invested in anyone until the cuts start, and that's just around the corner.

Next week is the beginning of the Hollywood Round, a two-week sequence that will winnow the 180 who've made it this far into 24 semifinalists, who'll be announced on the Feb. 17 episode. After that, well, it's just a few more months until this shindig's over. The good news is that Ellen DeGeneres is joining the show next week as the fourth judge, and since she's got the most entertaining daytime talk show on the air right now, I'm hoping she'll be able to make Idol genuinely fun. I know it's a long shot, but a boy can dream, can't he?

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