Recap: ‘American Idol’ Season Eight Premiere — Phoenix

01.14.09 9 years ago 2 Comments

Michael Becker/FOX

This is, I confess, a little odd for me.

I was hired at Zap2it in 2003 and on my second day, I was put to work writing a recap of the first semi-final of FOX’s “American Idol.” The show was a hit, but it was still building and virtually nobody on the Internet was doing night-by-night chronicles of the highs and lows. From that day on, I recapped nearly every “American Idol” episode for six consecutive seasons. My streak would be Ripken-esque except for two episodes I missed at the tail end of the Taylor Hicks season, one due to travel peculiarities in Phoenix on a press junket for the cinematic opus known as “The Benchwarmers” and the other for reasons that have gotten lost in the sofa cushions of time.

This is my first “Idol” recap for HitFix, though. I hope that if you’ve enjoyed my recaps over the years at Zap2it, that you’ll enjoy them here. In fact, why wouldn’t you?

This also will probably be the first recap posted in HitFix’s new Monkeys As Critics blog, which will soon become a repository for smart and funny commentary on a wide variety of current shows.

But without further ado… The premiere of the eighth season of “American Idol”…

OK. Forget that “no further ado” stuff. 

I don’t really believe in recapping the audition episodes. In my recap of last year’s premiere, I correctly isolated Kristy Lee Cook as a plausible candidate for the Top 12, which was prescient enough. Then again, I also predicted that Chicago’s Angela Martin had a good enough voice and a good enough story to sing into April or May. We never really saw her again. I also expressed strong reservations about Brooke White, never anticipating that some part of the country would go to love America’s Nanny.

Recapping audition episodes is just an opportunity to make a future fool of yourself, especially since the information on this season’s Top 36 is available online, if you happen to frequent the right spoiler sites. I’ve remained pure thus far.

Tuesday night’s premiere was set in Phoenix, where 27 people were put through to Hollywood. Over two filler-tastic hours, we saw 11 of those Golden Tickets, some of which seemed to go to worthy candidates, while others were laughable. 

But the real point of Tuesday’s episode was getting a first glimpse at new “Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi. Obviously you can’t gather much from 120 minutes in Simon Cowell’s shadow, but I feel OK about Kara so far.

Her vibe isn’t really all that different from the vibe Paula would give off if Paula’s dominant vibe weren’t Pixilated (not to be confused with Pixelated). Kara seemed encouraging, nurturing and constructive whenever possible and when she had to insult people, she did it with the same sort of apologetic absence of creativity that keeps Paula from ever hurting anybody’s feelings.

Plunked into the world with minimal preparation, Kara also provided a pretty face unjaded by seven years of seeing the freaks and the geeks. When somebody awful walked into the room, Kara’s “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” expressions were unforced, compared to Simon, Randy and Paula, who have learned over the years to recognize the set-ups well before they open their mouths. 

The thing I appreciated most about Kara’s persona is also what makes her a wee bit unlikeable. As a mostly anonymous (albeit presumably well-paid) songwriter and the “Idol” newbie, Kara kept showcasing what is either an inferiority complex or a chip on her shoulder. This makes her unpredictable and not in the same way that Paula is unpredictable.

Kara showed hints of this trait in the correcting of her name and when one contestant raved about how he’d seen them all on TV, she muttered something under her breath about how he’d never seen her. But she really let loose with the night’s most colorful contestant, Katrina Darrell, who can probably just be known henceforth as Bikini Girl. 

On her merits, Bikini Girl was neither as aesthetically pleasing in a bikini nor as vocally acceptable as previous Bikini Girl Lisa Marie Wilson of Season Three, though she probably isn’t much worse in any respect than the legendarily raunchy Antonella Barba.

Bikini Girl’s skills were never an issue. She walked in and simultaneously Simon and Randy both gave her a free pass while Kara started making snarky comments about her appearance. Her performance was thin-voiced and forgettable, but without any prompting Kara decided to demonstrate a better version of the song herself. Point of fact, Kara’s version of the song was better, but simultaneously I wasn’t blown away and I wasn’t sure why this was the moment Kara picked to play the “Yes, I’m a singer too” card. Kara was catty, but the Bikini Girl went cattier by challenging the superiority of the judge’s rendition, which caused Kara to push away from the table and declare, “Hold on a minute bitch.”

Now that’s not professional, but it’s awesome. 

Kara continued to mock bikini girl as she left the room, telling her to audition naked next time as well. [Think about how uncomfortable that would have made Ryan.]

On one hand, Kara’s decision to get drawn into a cat fight with an amateur exhibitionist doesn’t speak well for the thickness of her skin, but “American Idol” is an entertainment program and that was entertaining.

Bikini Girl won’t be the next American Idol, nor will several other contestants the judges let through.

Alex Wagner-Trugman, he of the surprisingly solid voice and the closet full of mold and the dead-pan (or dead-on-arrival) British jokes, isn’t going to be the next American Idol and Randy’s comparing him to Joe Cocker wasn’t even close to apt.

Brianna Quijada, she of the much-too-chipper personality and the dreadful rendition of “Killing Me Softly,” also isn’t going to find herself a serious contender.

The judges’ decision to put Brianna through made no sense in general, but also now sense in the context of an episode in which several of the very best contenders were personality-plus teens with big smiles and big voices. Arianna Afsar had the altruistic background — she sings for seniors — and the unnecessary runs that Randy liked, but I didn’t think she could hold a candle to Stevie Wright, whose strong features and older-than-her-years vocal tone remind me a bit of Jordin Sparks.

With her pink hair, lip-ring, nose-ring and tattoos augmenting features more “pretty” than “punk,” Emily Wynne-Hughes looked and sounded distinctive, but is the “Idol” audience that found Carly Smithson too inked and raw really going to embrace her? I think Deanna Brown, with they syrupy Kentucky accent and the endearing desire to recruit a family, seemed more the show’s preferred flavor.

Both Simon and Kara have given interviews saying that this year will be big for the men, but we sure didn’t get much indication of that out of Phoenix.

The best of the lot may have been Cody Sheldon, whose non-threatening androgyny and amateur videography (horror films, in fact), made my mind instantly go to Danny Noriega from last season.

I’ll also be interested to see more of Scott MacIntyre, or The Blind Guy. I agree with Kara that Scott will probably be more comfortable in front of a piano, which is bound to make him a one trick pony, but I hope we get a chance to see him sing with his instrument.

The less-palatable auditioners seemed to be weighed a bit more toward genuinely awkward people foisted on the judges by the producers rather than fame-seeking-whores in costumes or stand-up comic plants looking for exposure.

In that respect, I may have been more uncomfortable than usual watching the losers. The suicide of alleged Paula Abdul stalker Paula Goodspeed has tempered the way I look at some of these people. 

At 16, pink-obsessed Lea Marie Golde didn’t look depressed or deranged, but she’s a compulsive songwriter who described herself as Kara’s #1 fan, which is what Goodspeed said of Paula Abdul. That’s an association that the “Idol” producers should have taken pains to steer clear of. Also, what were the odds that Kara DioGuardi’s #1 fan would be at these auditions? Heck, what were the odds Kara DioGuardi had a #1 fan?

I found myself wondering why the producers decided to feature Randy Madden, a lachrymose aspiring rocker who described this as his last shot even though he’d never actually been in a band or performed in public. Folks shouldn’t cry that easily on camera unless they’re actors.

And I found myself worried about Michael Gurr, a 17-year-old who said he was terrified, never looked even slightly comfortable and couldn’t singe at all. Eventually he had to receive medical attention. His ineptitude wasn’t telegenic and his fear just made me uncomfortable. I guess he was dramatic, but not in the way that good-bad “Idol” auditions ought to be. He wasn’t being mocked or having fun himself. Surely “Idol” can do better than just filming people being miserable?

And every season we get a guy with a comically deep voice who can’t sing a note, but Paula says he should do voice-over work. This year’s was Elijah Scarlett. Yawn.

But we’re off, “American Idol” fans!

Any thoughts on the show’s premiere?

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