At the top of Wednesday night's Dallas-themed "American Idol" audition episode, guest judge Neil Patrick Harris told Kara DioGuardi that his goal was simple. "If I can make two, three dozen people cry, I feel like I've done my job."
There were lots of tears in Dallas, all mercifully packaged into one quick "bad singers rejected" montage. In fact, out of the ten extended auditions shown Wednesday night, a whopping seven of them featured contestants who advanced to the next round. (Is that a record?) Perhaps that's why this episode was an especially enjoyable one! (Or maybe the joy came from knowing that the end is in sight for these frustrating audition episodes. Yep, I think that might be it.)
As Katy Perry proved on Tuesday night, a guest judge's performance can easily become the real reason to tune in. Neil Patrick Harris was quick-witted and charming. (He critiqued a contestant's sign for not leaving enough space for her last name. That is hilar ... wait for it … ious.) But he also avoided the usual condescension that comes with the judge's panel, particularly around contestants with medical issues. (See NPH's straightforward, "I think you’re crazy brave" reaction to Dave Pittman, the white boy with soul who can suppress his Tourette's syndrome when he sings. Yep, that really happened.)
This episode will most be remembered for dominatrix Erica Rhodes, the former child star who escaped the clutches of the Purple One (Barney the Dinosaur, not Prince). She has given up her plushie ways and is now into sadomasochism! Although, upon further reflection, the children on "Barney and Friends" did scream commands at the viewers a lot. "Dance! Sing! Paddy whack! Do it now!" I will never think of that show the same way, especially after Randy asked Erica to sing the "I Love You" song while dressed like an extra from "Exit to Eden."
Unfortunately, Erica's singing wasn't very good. (In her defense, she cited Janet Jackson as a role model. You can't learn to walk from Stephen Hawking.) I suppose Erica's "Free Your Mind" was on pitch, but it still had an unpleasant, screechy quality that made me wish her getup came with a ball gag. Yet she made it through to Hollywood, mostly due to Simon praising her for "making an effort." Oh, Simon. 99 percent of the time you hate shtick, but because this girl is in space boots, fishnets and a bullwhip, you're all for it?
At the very least, Erica proved that you don't have to be a cancer survivor in order to have an interesting "Idol" hook. (No offense to token sob story Christian Spear or her family, who no doubt watched tonight's show while wearing homemade Christian Spear Snuggies.) Erica's unique story (and charming personality) made for awesome television.
Speaking of charming, I defy anyone who claims they didn't fall madly in love with airline dockworker (and "homegrown homeboy") Lloyd "Big Successy" Thomas, whose sunny personality and plus-sized appearance made me want to leap into my TV screen and give the dude a high five and a massive squeeze. Lloyd's attitude: Amazing. Lloyd's voice: Fair to middling. (He also took some liberties with the lyrics of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." Tsk tsk.) Even still, Lloyd got a ringing endorsement from the panel. "A billion percent yes," Randy yelped, to which Lloyd questioned, "A billion?" Yep, Lloyd. Randy makes up mathematically troubling percentages. He also makes up ridiculous theories about contestants' careers once they leave the show, so be prepared for that too, should you make it all the way to the Kodak Theater. (You won't.)
There was a fantastic convergence of bright personality and massive talent in Todrick Hall, a theater geek who starred alongside Fantasia in "The Color Purple" before stealing the show on "Idol" Wednesday. Hall performed an adorable original song about trying out for "Idol." (How Charlie Kaufman of him!) Sample lyrics: "Tell me do I have to dress up like I'm from/ A crazy house or sing like William Hung/ For you to see that there's some potential in little old me." Swoon! Except if we're going for accuracy, the lyrics should have referenced dead wives and chemotherapy as a way to get to Hollywood. Regardless, congrats Todrick! You just ousted Paula Fuga's "American Idol in Hawaii" as my favorite "Idol"-themed original song in an audition episode.
What really made Todrick's audition take flight was his voice. In the short novelty song he performed, Hall showed off controlled runs and a delicious lower register. Three out of the four judges were rightfully blown away. (It was hard to tell if Dallas' second guest judge, Joe Jonas, was impressed, as the dude said fewer words than Marcel Marceau.) But Simon wasn't feeling Todrick at all. The nerve. "A cutesy audition," he sniffed, "but voice-wise I'm not jumping out of my chair." Did Simon really just suggest that Barney Dominatrix Girl had a better singing voice than Todrick Hall? Somebody hold my earrings, because ish is about to go down!
Cowell was also off the mark when he criticized teacher Kimberly Carver. Her original song was a fun, flirty and finger-snappy offering but Simon whined, "I don't see anything current, anything interesting, anything that would me interested in you as a performer," before classifying her as "jazz TV." Breaking news, folks: Simon Cowell has never heard of Susan Boyle.
The rest of the judges defended Kimberly tooth and nail, culminating in an NPH/Simon Cowell showdown that ended with good news for the jazzy singer. "Thank God for Neil Patrick Harris," she exclaimed. "I'm gonna have to go back and watch 'Doogie Howser' again!" Personally, I'd rather just have Neil replace Randy on "Idol," but whatever.
Almost all of the judges got my goat during Meagan Wright's audition. (Meagan was the plain Jane girl whose parents were divorced and who said "It's just me and him" when referring to her little brother, though it was unclear whether she was his full-time caretaker or just his babysitter for the day.) First, Simon cut off her "Make You Feel My Love" just as it was getting interesting. Then Kara had the audacity to say, "You really confused me. From walking in with that outfit, I really that this was gonna be a joke!" Well, Kara, looking at your hideous eye makeup, I thought I was a watching an episode of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" or "RuPaul's Drag Race."
Simon argued in favor of Meagan's "no frills" wardrobe. "You're not trying too hard like we see with a lot of other people." Need I remind you that just minutes earlier you praised Barney Girl for putting effort into her outfit? With Paula gone, I guess Simon feels it necessary to be the incoherent judge.
Were you feeling Wednesday night's episode? Why didn't Joe Jonas do anything? And why did Tommy Davidson show up in the middle of the episode dressed up like Grace Jones? (Oh, that was a rejected contestant named Dexter Ward? My bad.) Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. And you can always Tweet (and follow) me @jambajim. We’re almost done with the auditions, folks! One! More! Week! We can do it!