‘American Idol’ Recap: Ellen DeGeneres Saves Hollywood

Tuesday night (February 9) kicked off Hollywood Week(s) on “American Idol,” an always-magical time when the dead weight from the early audition episodes gets kicked to the curb faster than you can say “SkiiBoSki.”

This season’s first Hollywood Week (or Hollyweek) episode was especially epic because it introduced us to an eye-opening new element on the judge’s panel that will change the way I view the show forever: The Coke cups were replaced with Vitamin Water Zero bottles. I know! What happened to our show, you guys?

Oh, and I suppose Ellen DeGeneres made her “Idol” judging debut, too.

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Yep, Ellen is now officially part of our big, dysfunctional “Idol” family. And although I initially thought she was a terrible choice (based on her spotlight-hogging star power, her conflict of interest and one astoundingly painful guest judge appearance on “So You Think You Can Dance”), I can now say that Ellen DeGeneres is exactly what’s been missing from the judge’s table since the fourth season: Passion.

Unlike Randy (who doesn’t bother to stretch his vocabulary beyond the word “interesting”), Kara (who doesn’t even have the brain power to recall Kris Allen’s name when appropriate) or Simon (who checked out right around the time Ace Young showed his scar), Ellen treated her new gig as a job worth taking seriously. (She even wore glasses! Like I said: Serious business!)

Since it was day one of Hollyweek (and since that day basically exists so that the judges can cut all the average folk who got through the first round thanks to pants splitting or sad children or loud Italian families or a history of cancer), Ellen had plenty of opportunities to flex her “brutally honest” muscles. She said performances put her to sleep, that they were cray cray in the hay hay (not in those words) and — in the case of Antonio “SkiiBoSki” Wheeler — that she was frightened by his “leopard behind a cage” stalking. Simon would have ended his critique with that metaphor, but Ellen followed up her acerbic put-down with some legitimately helpful advice. “Don’t frighten your audience. Sexy and scary … it’s a fine line.” (Imagine what she would have told Constantine Maroulis!)

Perhaps DeGeneres’ most biting commentary was aimed at Simon directly. “So this is it,” she told the cranky British judge in the first moments they shared on screen together. “I come on, you leave.” Given that this was taped the same day Simon announced he was leaving “Idol,” Ellen’s got cajones the size of Mike Lynche’s biceps.

There was a nice streak in Ellen, too. When early fave (and bridge-jumping enthusiast) Vanessa Wolfe sang Blind Melon’s “No Rain” as if she were deaf and suppressing projectile vomit, Ellen told the hot mess of nerves and purple ruffles that she was “unique” before recommending she dig deep to uncover some self-confidence. “You’re hiding inside and just scared to death. You gotta let go of that, because those nerves are gonna kill you.” Sweetly said. Paula would be proud. (In fact, Ellen paid her respects to her predecessor by doing one of Paula’s patented straight-arm seal claps after Andrew Garcia‘s “Straight Up” wowed the judges.)

The real stars of the show were the “Idol” editors, who deftly strung together Ellen’s greatest hits, presented her as a multi-faceted character, allowed her to lighten the mood with humor only when necessary and somehow made the hour feel like it was mostly about the contestants. Emmy time!

So who are these contestants we apparently spent all this time with?

Well, it turns out anyone (and everyone) can play guitar. (Radiohead was right!) From Janelle Wheeler‘s perfect “American Boy” to Didi Benami‘s emotional Kara DioGuardi cover (brown-noser!) to dread-headed (and dreadful toothed) Crystal Bowersox‘s Aretha re-do, the night’s big standouts all featured a shoulder strap and a strum. (Fun fact: Crystal Bowersox’s guitar featured a Melissa Etheridge autograph.)

As much as I enjoyed newbie Lilly Scott‘s chilled-out vibe and fresh Ella Fitzgerald acoustic update, I was distracted by her odd occupation listing: “Sandwich maker.” Did anyone else picture a sandwich maker kitchen appliance wearing peacock earrings and singing the blues?

The big breakout performance, however, was Andrew Garcia’s aforementioned “Straight Up,” an unplugged ode to Paula Abdul that will go down with David Archuleta’s “Heaven” and Matt Giraud’s “Georgia On My Mind” as one of the most memorable Hollywood Week performances ever. No wonder Kara had an AndrewGasm. “That was genius! Genius! Paula would be screaming and yelling and clapping and dancing.” Well yes, Kara, but she also does all that when one of her Chihuahuas uses a wee wee pad successfully.

Kara ruined Andrew’s moment (for me, at least) when she finished her critique by saying the way he took a pop song and “flipped it” to make it his own reminded her of … wait for it … wait for it … Adam Lambert.

Now I love me some Adam Lambert (congrats on your first gold album, dude!) and I’m fully aware that Adam stood out in Hollywood Week last year for turning Cher’s “Believe” into a torch ballad. And yes, he always picked arrangements of songs to fit his specific point of view. But how can you watch Andrew singing “Straight Up” and not immediately think of Kris Allen’s “She Works Hard for the Money” or “Heartless?” Andrew’s even wearing a plaid shirt, for Pete’s sake! Either Kara still holds a grudge for Kris ditching her coronation song last summer or she’s a moron who could couldn’t care less about this show.

Not all the guitar players made me want to join a band just yet. Casey “Shirtless” James showed that his bluesy talents are more in his hands than his voice. And as much as I’m rooting for Haeley Vaughn‘s bubbly personality and admirable mission to become the first African-American female pop-country star, too much of her version of Taylor Swift‘s “Change” made me long for the Grammys. We’ve seen teens get swallowed by the “Idol” stage before (paging Camille Velasco and Lisa Tucker), so I worry Haeley’s uneven start is a sneak peak of what dreams (or nightmares) may come.

The guitarless Katie Stevens sang Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” well for a 16-year-old, but her spotty phrasing and empty delivery prevented me from jumping on board the Katie Train this week (which is running full steam ahead thanks to the judges’ wild overpraise). Remember when Jordin Sparks sang “I Who Have Nothing” or when Allison Iraheta sang … anything? It is possible for young singers to connect with a song and knock it out of the park. I wish the judges would save their Hosannas for when Katie actually does deliver a home run.

So the jury’s still out on Katie — and it’s still out on Ellen, too. The live shows are a different beast. (Remember: Even Kara seemed competent during her first “Idol” audition episode last year.) Without the luxury of an editor, we may be subjected to more oddball observational humor in the midst of a singing competition. Plus, there wasn’t too much interaction amongst the judges, so it’s difficult to judge the overall chemistry of the new panel. (Rumor has it Ellen and Simon butted heads during Hollyweek — a “rivalry” that didn’t surface in Tuesday’s episode.) But so far, Ellen DeGeneres is a welcome jolt of clarity in this insanity known as “American Idol.”

What did you think of Ellen’s first day on the job? Who were your faves? Did you snicker when Guitar Girl fell on her butt climbing out of an airport shuttle? Were you bummed that fan fave Tyler Grady was relegated to nothing more than a confessional interview? (Even if it resulted in him cursing and then saying one of the funniest “Idol” ad-libs I’ve seen in awhile: “I think I just got an ‘American Idol’ sign on my mouth and I’m sorry about that America.”)

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