Idol Beat: The Hollywood Shuffle Begins...

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Here we are in Hollywood, kids! Yes, the dingy, tourist-ridden section of Los Angeles that's become a handy way to package and sell the myth of stardom to the unsuspecting. Hollywood is so quintessentially American that if it didn't exist we would make it up as a place to put our dreams. Nothing but Oscar-themed McDonald's as far as the eye can see, and the feeling that everything around you is probably a painted backdrop. To American Idol's credit, the Hollywood Week segment of the show is actually in Hollywood, at the Kodak Theatre on Highland where the Academy Awards are held, which is across the street from an awesome dive bar called Power House, where the cameras, sadly, never went. I didn't spot any of the Houston singers in the episode --including 17-year-old Christian Spear, who won the cattle call with an Etta James cover -- but that doesn't mean they didn't make it.

Hollywood Week is actually spread over two weeks by airdate. Last night were the first and second days, when 181 finalists were winnowed down to 96 based on solo performances. (Singers can choose to go acappella or play their own instrument.) Wednesday's episode will see those 96 split into groups, while next week will presumably see them engage in a city-wide game of capture the flag followed by waterboarding and general trivia.

There weren't too many surprises last night, by which I mean that the singers who'd done exceptionally well in the cattle calls made it through to the next round while those who'd skated by on charm or a sad story were typically sent packing. Vanessa, the poor Southern girl who'd never flown on a plane before her trip to L.A., was shattered by nerves and the scope of the audition, and blew her song (Blind Melon, randomly) with a shaky voice and that was that. So help me, I was actually sad to see her go. Not because I thought the show had lost a good singer, or the brand had lost a marketable character, but because this girl seemed so genuine. You just know the overnight bag she took was bought special for the trip.

Last night was also Ellen DeGeneres' first night as a judge, and she split her time between making jokes and delivering some tough truths, which is pretty much all I want her to do, ever. She's got the most entertaining daytime talk show on the air, and I'm glad she gets another venue in which to goof around. Who'd have thought 10 or 15 years ago that her career could bounce like this?

Katie, a young brunette with a killer voice, did a nice version of "For Once in My Life," and there were several other female singers who won by playing guitar as they sang: My favorite was probably Haeley, this tiny 16-year-old dwarfed by her guitar who's got a cannon for a voice. Crystal was nice, too, especially because she didn't look like the typical starlet or auditioner, just a gifted performer.

Most of the guys seemed interchangeable last night, though a couple stood out, namely a big guy named Mike who got a call from his wife before he sang saying she was in labor, and whose decision to stay and sing and not panic seemed out of touch with every human emotion. (He won, though.) But the best was this hip kid named Andrew, who did a broken down version of "Straight Up" backed by acoustic guitar. If this were available to buy, I would buy it right now.

All told, I was pleased with how things went. This is my first season watching American Idol, and I had no idea what to expect after the wide-open auditions phase. It's interesting to see the judges making quicker cuts and tough choices to get the competing field down to the 24 that will head into what I guess are the semifinals. The show isn't life-changing, but it's (so far) the least bad reality show I've ever seen. That's got to count for something, right?

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