One thing you can count on is that when "American Idol" goes to Las Vegas, you're going to get a plethora of bad gambling jokes. Ryan Seacrest is certainly nothing if not a practitioner of the corny geographical puns. How will the gambles go? Will we strike it rich? Ha ha ha! Oh, that Ryan Seacrest. What was surprising about Wednesday's show is that the puns actually played out for once. A few longshots genuinely paid off for a change, sending more than just the pretty belters through to Hollywood.
Things got started with Mikalah Gordon who, at only 16, seemed an unlikely candidate for a successful performance of "Lullabye of Birdland." But after wrapping a surprisingly earthy voice around the necks of Simon, Randy, Paula, and guest judge Kenny Loggins, Mikalah was put through to Hollywood, despite not being old enough to vote and barely being old enough not to need a ride to the library. For a girl who isn't a pop princess to get through at that age is an impressive accomplishment.
Also looking like a dark horse was Amanda Avila, who got off to a very bad start by wearing a pink shirt that said "ME" in giant letters. She seemed like a straightforward parody of the narcissism that is adopted without irony by most of her compatriots, but then it turned out that her necklace said "PICK." Get it? "Pick Me." Oh, pick me. Sure, great!
Begging to be chosen isn't actually a strategy with all that long and glorious a history, so Amanda didn't seem to be off to a very good start. But she sang well, especially if you like it really loud — which this show does, of course — and until she starts showing up with a necklace that says "UN" and a shirt that says "PREPARED," she just may have a shot.
One good way to make sure you aren't chosen is usually to pick up on something that one of the judges says and just start shrieking in the middle of what's supposed to be your audition. But that's exactly what Emily Neves did. One mention of Cyndi Lauper from Loggins and she was out there, yelping "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" at the top of her lungs. And by "top of her lungs," we mean . . . the very, very top. Near the cheap seats.
Simon called the performance "awful," and compared it to "fingernails on a blackboard," but Paula bailed Emily out by having her sing something else. A fair-to-middling reading of "Different Drum" got Emily over, thanks to the judges' fondness for her high energy, but she doesn't sound like she's likely to have the pipes to make it. Still, an impressive recovery for a girl who opened on such a weak . . . well, note.
Viva Las VegasWhile he doesn't quite fit the pattern of unlikely longshot winners, there's no denying the strong sense of Vegas about Joseph Land, pegged by the on-screen captions as "Age: '28,'" despite indeed appearing to be old enough to have fathered most of the other people in the competition. Perhaps even to have fathered them in sequence. He didn't help his appearance of youth and vigor by singing a song by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, either.
But just as Vegas always has that one creepy guy hanging around who's kind of too old and used-up and makes you feel like you want to go in another room to get away from the pain of watching the life drain out of him? Yeah. In Vegas, he's usually near the nickel slots, but Wednesday night, he was Joseph. And he, among all these winners, was an actual reject.
Speaking of rejects, after the drubbing that most of the twins, triplets, and other matched sets have taken this season thus far, the last thing that would have been expected was a strong showing by one coming back for another helping of abuse. Rich Molfetta, dissed by Simon on last night's show in a particularly cruel manner, showed up without his twin brother this time. Simon still failed to become a Molfetta partisan, but the combined forces of Randy, Simon, and the plucky, frequently pity-taking Loggins drove Rich through to the next round. Hopefully, this will not be taken by those blonde triplets to mean they should keep coming back to be told again how fat they are.
Size does matterSpeaking of which, perhaps the most unlikely winner of the night was Jennifer Todd, a woman not merely curvy like some of the ones Simon has inexplicably pilloried in the past for having hips or a chest, but genuinely big — a woman of a type not usually advanced beyond the auditions. She acknowledged her self-consciousness before she hit the stage, and knew she'd have to nail the vocal in order to get through. While parts of her Alicia Keys number were a little shaky, by the end, she had made it clear that she had talent, and she was put through by all three judges.
And finally, for the first time that I, for one, have seen, Kenny Loggins pointed out that it's a little stupid to keep sending women home for being fat when the show has in the past anointed Ruben Studdard, who can, sadly, barely stay on his feet these days. Fans have waited a long time to hear this ridiculous double-standard called out, and if it had to come from the guy who sang "Danger Zone" in "Top Gun," then so be it.
Some of those whom the odds did not favor indeed went home in tears — or at least in obscurity.
It's still a bad idea to sing a song from "The Lion King" complete with funny cartoon voices. It's still a bad idea to be a bad Elvis impersonator or make anything Simon will refer to as "stabbing motions" while doing your best Neil Diamond. It's still a bad idea to sing "Thriller" in a manner so creepy and disturbing that it will make people want to change their phone numbers and go into hiding just because they watched it on television. It's still a bad idea to be the worst person ever to sing "Lady Marmalade" on "American Idol" — it's an accomplishment, mind you, but that doesn't make it smart.
But Vegas is Vegas, and sometimes you can make the video poker machine spit out enough money to buy you a drink. And some of the contestants with the worst hands to play managed on Wednesday to stay alive and in the game.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.