''American Idol'': A very charitable episode | EW.com

TV Recaps | American Idol

''American Idol'': A very charitable episode

The star-filled special telethon edition of ''American Idol'' keeps the focus on giving -- and spares all of the contestants until next week

”American Idol”: A very charitable episode

Emotionally manipulate me once, shame on you. Emotionally manipulate me twice, shame on me. Emotionally manipulate me over and over for two hours, and, well, there’s a pretty good chance you’re one of the producers of ”Idol Gives Back” — a lengthy mash-up of big-name musical performances, random A-list cameos, devastating scenes of global poverty, and well-intentioned pleas for viewer generosity. Oh, and as an afterthought, the pesky little business of advancing the plotline of America’s biggest, most addictive reality competition.

Or, rather, not advancing it.

Indeed, in the spirit of charity, the show spared all six remaining contestants for an additional week — but with the catch that the current week’s vote tally will be combined with next week’s and will result in the ouster of two singers during the May 2 episode. It was a possibility that I’d mentioned in my Tuesday-night performance-show TV Watch and that many of you wondered about on our message boards throughout the day on Wednesday. Unfortunately, host Ryan Seacrest made it screamingly obvious that was indeed what the show had in store by repeatedly alluding to the ”most shocking result in our history” throughout tonight’s telecast.

Which isn’t to say my heart didn’t stop beating for those few seconds after Ryan announced Chris Richardson’s safety, causing Jordin Sparks to have an Ashley Ferl moment.

But hey, it’s Idol! I can’t fault ‘em for playing fast and loose with my emotional well-being. It’s what they do best. Nor can I fault the way the show pushed my buttons with footage of beautiful poor kids from the U.S. and Africa.

Sure, it would be easy to make a snarky remark about the merits of pointing a camera in the face of a 12-year-old orphan, asking him about his struggle to support himself and his 7-year-old sister, then having a well-groomed television host urge him to ”let it out” — all in the name of good telethon — but when was the last time any program with even half the size of Idol’s audience forced its comfy viewers to confront issues like illiteracy in rural Kentucky, urban violence in Los Angeles, and the harrowing crises of AIDS and malaria in Africa? With $30 million in donations raised by the end of the broadcast, my inner cynic is feeling a little reticent — although he’d like to ask Quincy Jones why the hook-to-cliché ratio of his anthem ”Time to Care” was tilted so violently toward the latter category.

And while the show’s performance elements felt a little jumbled, it’s the right of any telethon to run wild with a ”something for everyone” vibe that un-self-consciously favors schmaltz and sincerity over hipness and good taste. I’ll admit I rolled my eyes a little over Celine Dion’s duet with a hologram Elvis, but my mom later insisted by phone that I’d missed the point. ”Oh, honey, I’d watch Elvis every night if they put him on TV!” she shouted excitedly into the phone. ”How did they do that?” Oh, Mom, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one!

For my money, I preferred Annie Lennox’s beautifully committed take on ”Bridge Over Troubled Water” (I hope you were taking notes, Idols!), Kelly Clarkson’s Jeff Beck-assisted ”Up to the Mountain” (although you just know LaKisha will try to tackle it next week — argh!), and Earth, Wind & Fire’s lively medley (despite the fact that I secretly hate medleys). Plus, that kid with the missing teeth in the front row of the African Children’s Chorus (accompanying Josh Groban on ”You Raise Me Up”), well, let’s just say he may have single-handedly activated my dormant ”dad gene.” So frickin’ cute!

Even more surprisingly, most of the show’s comedy bits were at least somewhat successful (even though the previously announced appearance by ”Borat” never happened). I’m not a huge Jack Black fan, but I got more than a few laughs watching him perform ”Kiss From a Rose” for the judges, demand ”some of that sweet love” from Paula, then get a last-minute show of support from Seal. Ben Stiller’s pledge-or-I’ll-keep-singing cover of the Little River Band’s ”Reminiscing” may have lasted too long, but I actually guffawed when he inserted that ”Blake Lewis” riff in the middle. And Lisa Simpson’s Paula Abdul imitation in the animated spoof on Idol’s auditions was priceless.

Even the star-studded lip-synch to ”Stayin’ Alive” held my attention, if only by prompting the following outbursts: Hey, it’s Valerie Cherish! Damn, Goldie Hawn looks great! Hugh Laurie should do more comedy. Looks like Fox is picking up that pilot with Kirstie Alley as a minister. And, hey, there’s Helen Mirren, completing the Oscar-winner daily double with Forest Whitaker.

And speaking of outbursts, here are my five favorite message-board comments of the week:

5. Jonnynyc: ”Why was Blake imagining all the ‘beoble’ and wanting to live in ‘beace’? And why hasn’t anyone called him on the fact that he replaces all P’s with B’s. It’s super weird. Weirder than his blaid pants.”

4. KC: ”Mindy Doo would be the most boring Idol ever. If she doesn’t win the top prize, she could always be the lead singer on Dancing With the Stars. They could use a good voice coming out of the shadows!”

3. On the DL: ”Hey, Michael, you are not the only one who is not so sure about this thing. I mean, ‘Idol Gives Back’? Not a very accurate title when donations are coming from corporate sponsors and viewers. Now if Idol wants to give me my wasted time back from being subjected to Sanjaya, then we can talk….”

2. Orange: ”Chris R inspired me all right — he inspired me to shave, start wearing shades in the sun (lest I develop a similar squinting behavior), and be vigilant about matching the top of my wardrobe (sharp looking shirt/blazer combo) to the bottom (nasty cargos and sneakers). Say, do male American Idol contestants ever wear real shoes anymore? Or is all sneakers all the time where it’s at this season?

1. Forcefield!: ”Why does the ‘Idol Gives Back’ logo look exactly like a York Peppermint Patty?”

What did you think of ”Idol Gives Back”? How about the multiple mentions and shots of Sanjaya? Should Ellen DeGeneres take over for Ryan next season? And do you think Carrie Underwood could have a hit on her hands with that cover of ”I’ll Stand by You”? Discuss!