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'American Idol': The Blue Tongue Brigade assaults the beaches

February 13, 2008 |  1:59 pm

In every great war film there's the scene where the company, after 25 minutes of high-spirited basic-training high jinks, stumbles carefree into the war zone and suddenly finds the platoon’s boy next door and the tough-talking born-to-be-a-hero blown to smithereens. And in that instant, the men who were 10 minutes ago children, bombs tearing up the earth all around them, look each other in the eye and realize that now, and not one second later, they must become soldiers or they must die.

For "American Idol’s" children of January, that moment came Tuesday night. Last week, they sat with their friends in the stadiums all chanting together, “I’m the next American Idol,”  waving their golden tickets, jumping for joy with their families. Tuesday night, they entered a killing field, certain that all but the great would die, their careers ended in one fell blow. History has no place for those who came to Hollywood Week and made it no further.

The blow was all the harsher this time as -- as the preseason foreshadowed -- Hollywood Week took on a harrowing, all-business air. In past years, it's been a time for some of "Idol’s" greatest dramas and sideshows to play themselves out.  Last year’s Hollywood Week was dominated by the burgeoning rivalry of Antonella Barba and her soon-to-be-discarded best friend, by Sanjaya and his sister’s tearful parting when the latter was eliminated, by novelty reels featuring a trio of singing cowboys, by the Brittenum twins' explosion at the judges and by the catfight fest of group song day.   

This year, we had singing and eliminations.

In the whirlwind two hours, we saw almost no backstage antics, only brief flashes of the stress and tears and only brief novelty singing -– Kyle the tie-wearing politician who came within a hair’s breath of being eliminated. The producers even cut as apparently too shticky what I considered the season’s second-most suspenseful piece of stagecraft: Hollywood Week’s ending, when the remaining contestants are broken up into three rooms (one of which will be eliminated en masse) and wait, feeding off one another’s nervous hysteria.

After last season’s fears that the quality of talent had suffered, clearly the agenda was to make the week actually function as a wheat-from-chaff sorting house. Even sob stories were no guarantee. A shocking twist of expectations took place in the show’s second half as Angela from Philadelphia,  mother of the disabled daughter, told how her father had “been killed” just before she came west and how she struggled with whether she should come but remembered her father’s assurance that he would be with her. And then she took to the stage and was sent home. Normally, the touching-story reel is a guarantee of advancement, but Tuesday night it was as though "Idol" was sending a message: We are not fooling around this time.

And indeed, at the end of the week, after a (relatively) subdued and sober audition tour, there is cause for genuine guarded optimism about the season to come. As opposed to last year, when a very few talents stood out and the rest seemed to have snuck in somehow, there were in fact many extremely plausible, star-looking, icon-potential singers in the bunch.

Standing out of the pack at this early date: Michael Johns is an Australian pretty boy who is clearly an instant superstar. Josiah, the boy who lives in his car, reminds me a bit of the preacher character from “There Will Be Blood”; he has the same charismatic potential with his semi-unhinged intensity.  A number of the women seemed extremely credible.

Last season it took a bit of a leap of faith to believe Ryan when he intoned at the end of Hollywood Week that it was "Idol’s" greatest crop of talent yet (a leap this reporter happily made). This season, one hears the claim and sorta shrugs. Maybe so. We shall see.

In fact, if I have a fear for this season it is that they have erred too far on the side of talent. Where is the potential Sanjaya? Who of this group is going to have a naked-pictures scandal like Antonella?  Can "Idol" live by talent alone?

A couple of random notes:
First, as ever, "Idol’s" ability to admit its mistakes is breathtaking and unique in entertainment. In the opening scenes, Ryan proudly announced that for the first time in "Idol" history, contestants would be allowed to use instruments. Cut to a montage of the judges trashing the contestants for using instruments, saying the instruments are ruining their performances.

And finally –- who the hell was handing out Popsicles to the contestants before they went onstage? In the honed-to-the-millimeter "Idol" machine, the parade of blue tongues was an amazing sight.

Tomorrow night -- television's most harrowing night. The Green Mile episode. One hour, nothing but contestants learning their fates. Drama is never so gripping.

-- Richard Rushfield

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