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Hollywood ‘Idol’ moves at speed

Viewers barely got a chance to know contestants before they were sent packing. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

After meandering through the initial tryouts, taking eight shows and four weeks to cover the seven audition cities, “American Idol” stepped up the pace on Tuesday night. Hollywood week got a mere hour of coverage, less than its two-hour norm.

That made for a compelling but often frustrating night of television. Despite being fraught with the usual tears, laughter and groups looking to beat each other to death with plastic water bottles, the whole episode felt rushed.  In particular, the cutdown to the final 40 took place in the last three minutes of the telecast, and only a few people got anything more than a flash of face time.

Of course, the producers managed to show enough heartbreak to make for compelling TV, as a pair of siblings were split up.

The judges liked Sanjaya Malakar better than his older sister Shyamali from the time they both auditioned in Minneapolis, but it didn’t make it any easier on Sanjaya when he realized his sister wasn’t among the final 40. The two shared a tearful embrace in the lobby; he seemed sadder about her elimination than happy for his own success.

Also getting a lot of airtime were best friends Antonella Barba and Amanda Coluccio. They trumpeted their closeness during the New York auditions, so it was inevitable that the Hollywood round would catch them sniping at each other. But even though Barba made the final 40 and Coluccio was cut on the last day, Barba still forlornly looked for her friend until she realized that she wasn’t in one of the lucky two rooms. Coluccio still managed to smile and say “I’m so proud of her” when the cameras again found them in the lobby.

But that was just about it as far as closure goes. Gina Glocksen and Matt Buckstein have gotten enough airtime over the past two seasons that their positive performances were easily noted, and Chris Sligh is distinctive enough that he was difficult to overlook as he celebrated. But unless someone remembered Tami Gosnell’s face from the Feb. 7 episode, for example, they’d have no idea that she was among those who will be shown on Wednesday’s episode sitting around nervously waiting to find out if they’re in the semifinals.

Quick exits, strange decisionsPerhaps the pacing was intentional, meant to mirror the frustration that the 172 contestants who made it to Hollywood were feeling. For a lot of the women, the West Coast journey lasted just a day. For others, the group sing proved fatal. And as always, some of the selections the judges made had even the contestants scratching their heads.  

Take, for example, Sundance Head.

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Head was strong in his initial audition, so it wasn’t surprising that the judges gave him a pass after he struggled on his first Hollywood performance. But when he forgot his words in the group sing, he looked like he was expecting the judges to lose patience and kick him to the curb.

Instead, they gave Head yet another chance, and ultimately made him one of the 40 finalists. Meanwhile, Robyn Troup, who was good enough to get to sing with Justin Timberlake at the Sunday’s Grammys, got sent home. “If that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is,” Head said.

On the other hand, Baylie Brown shone in her initial audition, and fared well on her opening day performance in Hollywood. But she forgot the lyrics in her group performance and was rejected — even as fellow groupmate Coluccio was passed along despite her own brain cramp.

It helps to be maleBrown’s elimination was the biggest surprise of the night. As usual, most of the Hollywood round was predictable.

Contestants don’t always have to be extraordinary to get it to Hollywood. Good, sure. Great, usually. But come prepared for the first auditions with an interesting background story, or catch the judges in a rare good mood, and sometimes getting that golden ticket doesn’t necessarily require knocking everyone’s socks off.

Because of that, there are a lot more contestants sent to Hollywood than there are places in the final 24. The quota system doesn’t set in until the end of the Hollywood auditions, which means that sometimes one gender has a harder time sticking around than the other. That was particularly true this season, with 114 women among the 172 second-round contestants in the packed auditorium.

That meant that cutdown day was a lot tougher on the women than on the comparably small number of guys. This became evident when the first group of six girls, headlined by Jory Steinberg, who was so impressive in New York, all got the boot. It’s hard not to think the judges had that prearranged; it sent a clear message to the girls that they had better be really nervous before they sang, because terror makes for better television.

Steinberg may have met the Queen of England, and dressed like Paula Abdul in Hollywood, but the good story didn’t impress the judges. That was the common theme as 56 women got the boot after a 30-second soundbite on the first day.

Even the picture of her husband serving in Baghdad couldn’t save Army reservist Rachel Jenkins. Ashlyn Carr got two chances in San Antonio, but the third performance before the judges failed to charm in Hollywood. Porcelana Patino trained like Rocky and made it out of New York, but faltered in the sequel. Teenage runaway Sarah Burgess went out as well, but said her parents were proud anyway, so she was already a winner.

The guys had a little more wiggle room, but not enough for the likable but overmatched Jarrod Fowler, who couldn’t parlay his USS Reagan Idol title into the big time. But only 23 other men were cut, with 34 making it to groups.

Dysfunctional groups
Others had problems in groups, whether because of lyric malfunctions, team dynamics or judicial capriciousness. But time constraints meant only a few got their troubles immortalized on national television.

Matt Sato, a 16-year-old who mentioned his up-and-down relationship with his mother every time the “Idol” cameras caught him, finally ran out of good fortune when he forgot his lyrics.

Perla Meneses sang “Hips Don’t Lie” and shook her groove thang enough to make it out of the first day, but Simon waned her that she was more personality than talent. That became painfully true in the group sing, when she was a fish out of water in a foursome with Glocksen, Jessica Gordon and Marisa Rhodes. Meneses got cut, everyone else advanced.

Most of the 36 eliminated at the group stage, however, didn’t even get to hear themselves screw up during Tuesday’s broadcast. Apparently in “American Idol’s” sixth season, there’s no time to cry over spilt lyrics.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.