Michael Slezak
January 21, 2010 AT 05:00 AM 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

Then again, if Cornelius Edwards is what’s passing for Golden Ticket material these days, maybe we all ought to head to Vegas to bet a few hundred on Matt making the ’09 Idol summer tour. I mean, I understand that when Cornelius went into that sudden split and decimated his pants in the process, the judges got a momentary shock and a really great story to tell at dinner parties. But how is that worthy of a trip to Hollywood alongside the next generation of David Cooks and Carly Smithsons? Because you can’t tell me it was Cornelius’ dodgy rendition of ”Proud Mary” that the judges were excited about. To paraphrase one of Simon’s critiques (which was aimed at season 6 gremlin Sanjaya Malakar): ”I think the little boy’s face says it all.” And the little boy’s face — horrified, then furious after getting lifted by Ryan Seacrest — was so priceless, I had to screengrab it to accompany this article.

Of course, I had a much harder time scoring screengrabs of Janell Wheeler, Brittany Starr James, and Kasi Bedford, whose combined auditions got squished into a 57-second package that, divvied up evenly, would amount to 19 seconds of airtime per woman. Now when you consider that number — 19 seconds — is less than the standard amount of time it takes Randy to begin to form a kernel of a never-quite-salient critique, it leaves an Idoloonie like me scratching his head and wondering: Why couldn’t we have seen a little more of these ladies? Perhaps blonde, leggy Janell, who displayed a gorgeous tone and a delicious southern-fried timing on ”House of the Rising Sun,” should’ve dragged along an ailing auntie or two. If only regal, curly-haired Brittany, who took Estelle’s ”American Boy” to jazzy new places, had thought to exploit a rift in a relative’s marriage. And how come perky, purple-haired Kasi, whose ebullient smile and unique rasp left Simon smiling in the wake of her ”Something to Talk About,” didn’t exploit a physical or mental ailment in an effort to make her voice heard?

In all seriousness, though, why do Cecile Frot-Coutaz & Co. think it’s cool to tease us with the briefest taste of top 24 potential from Janell, Brittany, and Kasi, then spend almost four minutes making us gag on the depressing flavors of rage and desperation from Jarrod Norrell’s ”Amazing Grace” audition? Look: The guy has no business trying to make a living as a vocalist, and the greatest gift he could’ve gotten was an unfiltered reality-check from the judges. This, however, does not explain the copious amount of disdain Kara unleashed the minute Jarrod put a lid on his rendition of a classic hymn about spiritual redemption. Let’s roll tape of the DioGuardi mic feed: ”Good Lord, what was that? Do you really think you’re a good singer? Seriously? I’m not trying to be rude. You think you’re a great singer? Honey, it sounded like a lawnmower.”

Oh, Kara, when will you learn? (Never.) To quote one of the hateful magpie’s favorite season 8 phrases: ”Here’s the thing…” Simon’s blunt-force critiques and gleeful destruction of delusions masquerading as dreams has earned him the nickname Mr. Nasty. But we the people love him (mostly) because he delivers those put-downs with relative eloquence, flawless comic timing, and an overarching detachment that means he’s never going to let us see him lose his cool to a mere contestant.

Reviewing Kara’s screed against Jarrod for a moment, it’s clear she misses on all three counts: There’s not a single jazzy adjective or playful turn of phrase in her critique, just a repeated rhetorical question, a condescending ”honey,” and an inaccurate simile. Worse still, Kara’s immediate rush to speak first (and angrily) robs her of any chance of steering the audition into comedic territory and makes her seem small and vindictive. Why exactly is a powerful, successful pop songwriter so furious with a guy whose only crime is performing a subpar rendition of ”Amazing Grace”? Simon, meanwhile, asserted his brilliance in the wake of the incident, by waiting a few minutes after Jarrod’s handcuffed removal from the room, then looking at his fellow judges and asking: ”Yes or no?” In the words of the philosopher Montell Jordan: ”This is how we do it.”

NEXT: Another beatboxer like… who’s that guy?

Ah well, enough Kara bashing — for this week. Let’s get the focus back where it should be: On the five remaining Golden Ticket recipients shown this evening. I’d be pretty surprised if Shelby Dressel, Seth Rollins, Jay Stone or the Desimone sisters make it anywhere near top 24 (but since I dutifully and passionately avoid Idol spoilers, I can’t know for sure). This is not to say, however, that I didn’t enjoy their contributions to tonight’s show.

I mean, think about it: What’s the Hollywood Week group-performance round without the presence of a beat-boxer? Which is why I wasn’t surprised to see Kara and Randy say ”yes” to Jay Stone, whose scratch-and-scribble take on the Beatles’ ”Come Together” was both impressive and disconcerting in the area of ferocious commitment. Dude’s straight-on take on ”Ain’t No Sunshine,” though, was rather unremarkable, but without him, we might not know the depths of Randy’s ignorance. Again, let’s have some playback:

Jay: ”I’m bringing something new and different that this competition has never seen before.”
Randy: ”Wait, there was a guy, a couple years ago, wasn’t there? A beatboxer…”
Jay: ”Blake Lewis.”
Randy: ”Blake Lewis!”

UM, YES, YOU BLUNT-EDGED TOOL! THE GUY’S NAME WAS BLAKE LEWIS, AND HE WAS THE RUNNER-UP TO JORDIN SPARKS ON SEASON 6 OF A SHOW THAT INEXPLICABLY CONTINUES TO EMPLOY YOU IN SPITE OF YOUR DEEP AND UNABASHED LACK OF INVESTMENT IN ITS PROCEEDINGS!

Sorry. It’s just that, really, truly, how is this information not as easily accessible for Randy’s recall as his own date of birth, Social Security number, and email address? Actually, maybe Randy struggles with those basics, too. But it still doesn’t make me any less furious, especially since Blake is currently promoting an excellent sophomore disc called Heartbreak on Vinyl and really doesn’t deserve to get treated like a pesky footnote in the Idol Machine’s instruction manual. Ugh.

But where Jay failed to press any ”heartwarming” buttons, a pair of other Golden Ticket recipients more than made up for it. There was Shelby Dressel, an 18-year-old beauty with an undeveloped nerve that affects the motion on the right side of her face. I hated the way Ryan overtly asked if her disorder was a source of insecurity, but loved Shelby’s sexy, unexpected choice of Norah Jones’ ”Turn Me On,” plus her inadvertent s-bomb after visible nerves caused her to blank on a lyric. Kristin was correct that Shelby’s got more growth ahead of her — in terms of vocals and confidence — and that’s precisely why if I’d been in the Paula Abdul Memorial Chair, I’d have voted ”no” — with the promise that Shelby could skip the cattle call and head directly to the judges’ table in season 10.

At 28 and facing Idol‘s age cut-off, Seth Rollins wouldn’t have had the same option, so I wasn’t unhappy to see the father of a cute 5-year-old with autism score himself a Golden Ticket after delivering a mellow, muscular take on ”Someone to Watch Over Me.” Randy was correct (albeit ineloquent) when he told the burly insurance adjuster that he needs to ”exert a little more, exude a little more vibe,” but it won’t shock me if he ends up in head-to-head battle for the Everyman Semifinal Slot against Atlanta auditioner Bryan Walker (AKA the soulful police officer).

NEXT: No Solomon’s choice here — two sisters go through

Speaking of head-to-head battles, sisters Bernadette and Amanda Desimone lucked out when Kara convinced Randy to give ’em both the thumbs-up. Simon, after all, was planning to vote no on the latter after her adequate (but hardly revelatory) rendition of the cursed-on-Idol ”I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (once sung by season 3’s Tiara Purifoy… wonder if she’s any relation to Jermaine?). Indeed, I agreed with the Brit that Bernadette’s ”Hit the Road Jack” was perhaps a little stronger, but if we’re gonna hand out trips to Hollywood for dudes who split their pants, then I guess we shouldn’t set up roadblocks for mildly amusing Jersey girls with serviceable voices and slightly hoochie fashion sense. Especially when one of ’em (Bernadette) emoted in the most ridiculous/hilarious fashion, standing on the sidelines while her sister sang for her life, and garnered this classic quip from Simon: ”You were crazy nodding when you were listening to your sister — like Whitney’s been reborn. She hasn’t!”

What did you think of the Orlando episode? Were you happy to see a greater emphasis on successful auditions rather than ”I’m wearing a bridal gown!” shenanigans? Who was your favorite on the night? And did you find it as weird as me that the producers booked Kristin Chenoweth as a guest judge but didn’t insist on a full two-day engagement? Sound off in the comments below, and to get alerted to all my Idol musings, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.

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