Michael Slezak
January 21, 2010 AT 05:00 PM EST

We may or may not have seen the next winner of American Idol during tonight’s Orlando episode, but the sudden pendulum swing away from ghastly gag auditions and toward folks with a snowball’s chance of singing ”No Boundaries 2.0 (Kara’s Theme)” at the Kodak in May made me feel like the season 9 competition is finally underway.

Oh, sure, the episode had its weak spots: Kara latching on to guest judge Kristin Chenoweth like a hungry tick to a poodle’s ear; some dude getting a Golden Ticket for his near miss with testicular torsion; Randy using the phrase ”a bazillion percent yes,” and thereby reinforcing my fear that The Dawg’s perfunctory grasp of mathematics is going to be the new ”for me, for you”; and (uff da) Simon exposing his crispy grilled chest after what Ryan desperately wanted us to believe was a debauched, Hangover-style weekend in Miami. But the raw numbers tell us it was a good night in Idolville: 31 total Golden Tickets from Orlando, with 11 of ’em shown doing at least a little singing during tonight’s 60-minute telecast.

My favorite was Jermaine Purifoy, 24, a dishy young chap whose gorgeous rendition of ”Smile” appeared to snap all four judges to strict attention. And why not? As Kristin noted, there wasn’t an ounce of strain in Jermaine’s voice, not even as he transitioned into a glorious falsetto note at the end of the melancholy ballad, and that removed the patina of anxiety most of us are conditioned to feel when vulnerable young wannabes stand before the judges and belt. Yet while Jermaine’s quiet confidence and breezy charm in the audition room were admirable for someone who’d failed to get far with the judges back in season 7, I would like to nitpick about his wardrobe situation: That half-buttoned, slightly sheer dress shirt over a gray tee was more apropos for a Saturday trip to the Cineplex than a national TV debut. As for Simon’s prediction — ”Chicks will like you” — I’ll second that, and amend the statement to include a healthy percentage of male Idol watchers, too.

Now I’ll admit here that Jermaine scores bonus points with me by virtue of not arriving with an ”emotional,” TV-friendly story arc that allowed him to stand moodily on a desolate porch, looking out at the summer rain and/or a strand of barbed wire, while sad music played in the background. Yeah, yeah, I know Matt Lawrence couldn’t exactly gloss over the fact that he’d spent ”four birthdays in jail” for robbing a bank with a BB gun at age 15, but I can’t help but ask: Wouldn’t his rendition of Ray Lamontagne’s ”Trouble” have had just as much emotional resonance even if we’d known nothing about his reckless teenage years? And while I liked the genuine gruffness of Matt’s vocal, and the way that (as Simon put it) the guy delivered the lyric like he’d written it himself, I’d still like to see him exhibit a little more vocal range before (like Kara) I’m ready for him to advance to the top 12 without passing go or collecting $200.

NEXT: Kara shreds Jarrod Norrell

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