The group portion of Hollywood Week on American Idol is the one moment where all the crapola about dreams and rainbows takes a back seat, and Idol resembles just another grubby reality show. Needless to say, I'm thrilled they brought it back after a one-year absence.
Even though Idol is all about solo performance, there are a couple of competition-oriented reasons why Group Night is useful. It allows the judges to evaluate several singers at once, and since like-minded contestants often group together, similar types can be compared side-by-side. And the pace -- having to find partners, choose a song, rehearse and perform in less than 24 hours -- is similar enough to the Idol grind that it can weed out those who simply don't have the work habits to compete. But let's be real: The producers brought back the groups because it's the one time during the season where you're guaranteed to see interpersonal conflict, with meltdowns typically stemming from an inability to find partners or vastly differing work habits.
One contestant, Tatiana Del Toro, last seen giggling mindlessly after her so-so audition in San Francisco, displayed both problems. She joined one group and immediately raised hackles due to a disagreement on song strategy. Worried that she was going to be frozen out, Tatiana tried to join another group, and a disagreement about whether to admit her touched off fireworks there. She eventually returned to her original fold and somewhat surprisingly managed to hold it together, as she and her three heretofore anonymous partners all advanced to the final 75.
The trio that Tatiana tried to infiltrate had a combustible enough mix even without her. Nancy Wilson, Kristin McNamara and Nathaniel Marshall (the headband-wearing weirdo who told the judges on the first day that he could feel the desire to win on his skin) had nothing in common other than a shared penchant for dramatics. Nancy screamed, Nathaniel flapped his arms and cried, and Jessica Simpson lookalike Kristin rolled up in the fetal position. Their performance was predictably disjointed, but Nathaniel and Kristin (who sounded awfully strong for someone they hadn't shown us before) were deemed good enough to make the final stage.
While high drama and Group Night are synonymous, those who are canny enough to know they have a real shot to win generally stick to business. It's not a coincidence that the three drama queen groups Idol followed most closely contained only one singer, teenager Jasmine Murray, who looks like someone to watch. Jasmine's group contained Lauren Barnes, fan favorite Rose Flack, and "Bikini Girl" Katrina Darrell, who entered the night as a curiosity but would leave it as one of the show's all-time jackasses.
This group, which called itself "Team Diva," ran into trouble almost immediately due to Katrina's dislike of rehearsal. She eventually retired to bed early (complete with camera-ready tears), refused to get up the next morning, and then, when the rest of her team had just about given up on her returning, made a dramatic appearance in the hotel lobby. Whether Katrina knew by the time of Hollywood that she would be featured so prominently in the promotion for this season is unclear, but her behavior certainly lent itself to the suspicion that she was using Idol as a springboard to a career as a calendar model and reality show villain.
Prior to the start of the performances, Simon Cowell proceeded to make the singers even more nervous by announcing that forgetting lyrics would mean an automatic pink slip. Three people featured prominently in the auditions were sent home at least in part for this reason. Austin Sisneros can now return to being the Riverton senior class president full time, and Emily Wynne-Hughes, deemed "top five" by Paula Abdul after her overrated audition, will apparently be able to stick with Go Betty Go after all.
The other victim of forgotten lyrics was Rose Flack, whose story proved too good to be true after all. She would have been out of her element on Duffy's "Mercy" anyway, and forgetting every line except "now I'm begging you for mercy" was cruelly appropriate. Rose had shown signs on the first day that for all her elfin charm and sultry tones, she wasn't cut out for the relentless pressure of Idol. But Jasmine Murray was the one survivor from Team Diva and continues to emerge as a potential major player in this season, proving once again that someone trapped in a bad group can still survive if she nails her own solo.
There were a few other victims of Group Night who originally appeared, based on their early screen time, to be post-Hollywood sure things. David Osmond found that his famous name would get him only so far. Most shockingly, Deanna Brown, a veteran performer whose audition had been so excellent, was cut without us ever hearing her sing again. Idol isn't helping itself by spotlighting good singers in the early rounds and then reducing their stunning demises to a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like footnote, all so a nobody like Tatiana Del Toro can assume the episode's starring role.
All the time spent on shenanigans meant that several contenders (Jackie Tohn, Megan Corkrey, Lil Rounds) were not shown singing; and a few others, like Michael Castro and Leneshe Young, haven't been seen since their audition. India Morrison (who threw in a rap at the end of her group's charming performance), Matt Giraud and Matt Breitzke all reappeared after being left out of Tuesday's show. Also shown being moved forward: Alex Wagner-Trugman, Anoop Desai, Anne Marie Boskovich, Jorge Nunez and (incredibly) Norman Gentle, dressed for once as his civilian alter ego, Nick Mitchell.
But the Idol brass has been saying all along that this is a man's season, and the primary "good singer" focus on this evening was two male-led groups. Adam Lambert put his vocal flamboyance to work once again on Grand Funk's "Some Kind of Wonderful," a song also tackled by Breitzke, Jeremy Michael Sarver (who has had two straight excellent nights), and a woman named Jesse Langseth who they have been hiding from us for some reason. Danny Gokey was ably assisted on an a cappella version of Queen's "Somebody to Love" by his friend Jamar Rogers, Taylor Vaifanua and a female redshirt who was never named but sounded fine.
Next week, 75 are cut to 50, and then finally to 36. Yes, we are one week away from America possibly becoming swept up in Norman Gentle-mania.