Michael Slezak
January 22, 2008 AT 05:00 PM EST

A wave of anxiety rolled over me at 8 p.m. tonight. Two elderly gentlemen in fishing hats appeared on my TV screen and unenthusiastically said, ”Welcome to American Idol, San Diego, California.” In the background, you could hear Ryan Seacrest trying to prompt the old codgers to ”do it one more time, with a little more excitement,” but no dice: Take two was just as lethargic.

The whole scene was meant to be comical, but instead it briefly reignited a fear that got stirred up for me on Tuesday morning, when a colleague popped by my office and told me he’s not watching Idol anymore because over the previous six seasons, he feels he’s seen every kind of audition the show’s producers could possibly present. ”What if he’s got a point?” I thought to myself. ”What if Idol‘s tested formula of showcasing the good, the bad, and the gimmicky is about to start producing diminishing returns?”

Well, hold on to your Orvis catalogs. Tonight’s hour proved that Idol has some worms left in its bait can. (Sorry, this fishing metaphor has me hooked through the gills.) True, Simon has tossed off his trademark barbs more times than Fox has promised House‘s hardest-to-diagnose case ever. But each new face that shows up in Idol‘s audition room holds a type of dramatic potential that you can’t get in a scripted series. I mean, everyone knows Grissom and his team will crack the case on CSI; on Idol, there are no such certainties. Voices, minds, even lives can crack, or soar, or explode with just a few bars of music.

Take, for example, Carly Smithson, the tattooed Irish songbird who closed tonight’s show. If you follow Idol gossip at all, you might know that Smithson (formerly Carly Hennessy) was signed to a six-album deal with MCA Records earlier this decade. (Click here to read a fascinating Wall Street Journal account of her disastrous and expensive trajectory, and here to check out her video for ”I’m Gonna Blow Your Mind,” which I blogged about late last week.)

Anyhow, knowing all this, I approached Carly’s audition with skepticism. Didn’t she already get her shot at the Big Show? Why should she get a second chance on Idol? If she cracked the top 24, would I have nightmares about her husband using his face as a canvas for a piece called ”Hellraiser in Green”? And why the heck would she choose to audition with ”I’m Every Woman” when it ranks a close second (behind ”Against All Odds”) as the most played-out number in Idol history? (Side note: Isn’t it time the producers put a moratorium on this and another 20 to 30 overdone ditties?)

Then, moments later, something unexpected happened. Carly won me over. Just a little bit. Not by virtue of her very good (though not amazing) audition. But rather through her vulnerability. (Yeah, I’m sappy like that.) Here was a woman who’d been on the brink of stardom, now swallowing her pride and auditioning just like every pharmacy clerk and auto mechanic and nine-to-fiver who’d made their way to San Diego. And when the judges voted unanimously to send her to Hollywood, her tearful confessional actually got me a little choked up. ”Everything’s been like right there in front of me — I just haven’t been able to hold on to it,” she said, adding that she planned to ”work really hard” to advance in the competition. (Okay, maybe the Irish accent made it all that more stirring, but I like a contestant with a good work ethic, okay?)

Admittedly, Nigel Lythgoe & Co. edited the whole package to make us think Carly’s biggest career setback was losing her season 5 golden ticket over visa issues (thanks for the full disclosure, guys!), but Carly’s audition made me reach two conclusions. First of all, unless a singer has achieved true success on the charts, why shouldn’t he or she be eligible for the show? And second, Idol — graying and manipulative and maddening as it may be — still has the power to surprise us.

None of this is to say, of course, that when or if Carly reaches the top 24, I’ll necessarily be rooting for her. Indeed, there’s always something more appealing about contestants who are rank amateurs or who face hardships bigger than having been dropped by a major label.

NEXT: Daddy dearest

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