On Wednesday night, the endless parade of costumed wannabes and ham-fisted sob stories came to an end as "American Idol" aired its final audition episode of the season. By my count, season nine has yielded two divorces, 26 foster families, two syndromes (Tourette's and Downs), one Alzheimer's, two cancer survivors, one Austistic child, one paralyzed face and a reformed bank robber, yet only one true breakout star: "Pants on the Ground" sensation General Larry Platt. And that dude isn't even eligible for the competition!
Gee, "Idol" producers, you think it's time to revamp these audition episodes?
Thankfully, Wednesday night's final helping — a hodgepodge of leftover tryouts from every city they visited — was packed with talented singers, some of whom I could even imagine at the Kodak Theater, singing a song about obstacles, fortitude and earthquakes.
My favorite was redhead crooner Lacey Brown, who made "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" sound like I was hearing it for the first time in my life. It was smoky, smooth and sophisticated, and I've re-watched it more than any other audition this season. (It also helps that Lacey looks like she could be the granddaughter of "Mad Men" character Joan Holloway.) Last year, it came down to Lacey and Megan Joy in the Top 36. Here's hoping Lacey's unique, jazzy voice will hold up more than Megan's quirky squawk should she make it past Hollywood this year.
Lacey wasn't the only familiar face returning to "Idol" land. I spotted Amy Winehouse wannabe Frankie Jordan (now with bangs!), a quick shot of hippie Rose Flack and some random tanorexic girl who was more orange than Snooki in a basketball costume. The most notable repeat customer was Jessica Furney, who sucked up to Simon by performing "Footprints in the Sand," a Leona Lewis song he co-wrote. I remember falling in love with Jessica in season eight, mostly because of hilarious Grandma Furney. But this year, Grandma Furney was nowhere to be found, and although Jessica showed off a great makeover, her audition was the equivalent to "Police Academy 5." In theory, you want to like it, but without Mahoney there, the magic's gone. (Jessica made it to Hollywood, so perhaps we'll at least get an explanation of Grandma Furney's whereabouts! I need to know!)
I thoroughly enjoyed newbie Didi Benami, the 22 year-old beauty still mourning the loss of her deceased best friend. The segment scored as soon as I heard Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" on the soundtrack. It may have been manipulative, but at least "Idol" 's music supervisor branched out of their usual list of songs reserved for deceased friends/relatives/wives in these audition episodes. By the time Didi broke down in front of the judges (after they had praised her spur-of-the-moment, emotional "Hey Jude"), I was biting my lip and praying that she'll have the good sense to ditch the dead friend angle moving forward. I'd hate to see her get the Gokey treatment by cynical "Idol" fans. She's far too talented for that.
I think Seacrest's fave was personal trainer Michael Lynche, who impressed with a modern-day R&B spin on Simon's favorite song, "Unchained Melody." When the "singing teddy bear," as Kara lazily called him, emerged from the audition room with a Golden Ticket, Seacrest was more touchy feely than a drunken Santa at the office holiday party. Oh, Ryan. I've seen more subtlety in a Tyler Perry stage show. (It's important to note that Michael is rumored to have been disqualified because his dad blabbed to the press. I imagine this drama will play out on "Idol" in the coming weeks, should these unsubstantiated reports prove true.)
The biggest shock of the night was how much Aaron Kelly reminded me of season seven's runner-up, David Archuleta. Like Archie, Aaron's soft-spoken interview soundbites are punctuated by "hmms" and "uhhhs," yet when he sings he has a maturity well beyond his years. (Cowell picked up on this, too, at one point saying, "The moms will like you.") Aaron's wheelhouse is decidedly more country than David's. Given the success of Taylor Swift, a male mainstream country artist like "Countryleta" seems like a slam dunk. I expect major pimping of Aaron from the judges this season.
I won't bother writing much about Aaron's past — he was adopted by his aunt and uncle when things got rough for his birthparents — because the success of his audition had little to do with knowing his biography. The same can't be said for episode closer Hope Johnson, whom "Idol" painted as the (adorable) face of extreme poverty in the United States. I remember more about Hope's teary introduction than I do her average "I Hope You Dance." It'll be interesting to see how Hope's parents are portrayed if they end up in the audience for live shows, considering her interview called them out for never giving their kids dinner. Ouch!
As giddy as I was about the auditions coming to a close, watching Wednesday's episode was bittersweet, as it was the final audition episode starring Simon Cowell. Imagine how dreadful Amanda Schectman's theatrical audition would have been without Simon's blatant mocking of her over the top behavior. Would Adrian "The Big Kahuna/Blondezilla" Chandtchi's segment have had the same punch if it weren't for Cowell's quip about eating a schoolboy? (Actually, probably: Adrian's "I am a beautiful man flower" speech was fairly inspired for an "Idol" character.)
With Simon gone, we'll be left with Randy Jackson, who more often than not speaks in gibberish. (I'll give him a couple of points for him offering real constructive criticism about phrasing to Hope Johnson. Who knew he was capable?!) We'll have Kara DioGuardi, whose lack of self-awareness is now an embarrassment of sex tape proportions. (I stopped breathing when Kara offered a hug to rejected Victoria Beckham superfan Stephanie Fisher after Posh Spice hugged her first.) It's a serious problem if a judge is more delusional than a girl like Shaddaii Harris, who might have been the 750th person to scream "Fallin' " on "American Idol."
And we'll have Ellen DeGeneres. I'm excited to see her grand debut kick off Hollywood Week on Tuesday. And I'll try my best to cut her some slack until the live shows begin. At the very least, we know she won't be as bad as you know who.
What did you think of Wednesday's episode? Where do you think Grandma Furney is hiding out? Do you think the "naughty" singer who sang "I Kissed a Girl" was wearing panties? Did Crystal Bowersox remind anyone else of season six's Tami Gosnell? And did you catch Amanda Schectman's sister's priceless "girl, please" stank face when Amanda was giving her "acceptance speech" in the hallway? Leave a comment below! And for more "Idol" shenanigans, follow me on Twitter @jambajim.