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Oh, the 'Idol' tryout humanity

The quest has begun, with the truly talented -- and delusional -- vying to become the next TV-made star.

January 17, 2008|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

And so, again, out of many (very, very many) will come one. In these days of modern entertainment, with all our special effects and fancy editing tricks, somehow we have lost something that throughout history has formed the basis of drama: the sight of a cast of thousands amassed for combat.

Yes, we have our "Lords of the Rings" and our "300s," with their sweeping pans over millions of little cartoon orcs and swordsmen, but somehow even the best graphic effects the entertainment industrial complex has to offer leave one cold; nothing stirs the heart like a DeMille pan over scores of real human extras packing their huts, each one in his own way dreaming of escaping to a better life as he races to flee pharaoh. No amount of modern alchemy can re-create the one plaintive voice amid the crowd crying at his obstinate mule, "Four hundred years of bondage, and today he won't move!"

Today, these vast flesh-and-blood hordes striving for the freedom for which our ancient dramatic instincts yearn can be found in one place in our culture: the audition episodes of "American Idol."

As blase as even the most hardened "Idol" fan may be sitting down for the start of the show's for-crying-out-loud seventh season, the sight of stadium after stadium filled with people -- 100,000 of them, each one certain that they were destined to climb from obscurity and achieve the highest honor our society can bestow, megastardom -- well, how can the heart but race at such a sight?

And as the Ryan Seacrest voice-over reminded us, somewhere amid this crowd sat one lonely singer who in a mere five months is destined for stardom. But more important, amid those ranks sat 99,976 people who are not remotely destined for stardom -- and breaking that news to them is the business at hand for the next three weeks.

True to form, the first episode -- two hours of highlights of the Philadelphia auditions -- featured the franchise's stalwarts of heart-rending sob stories, human oddities and a handful of diamonds in the rough. Some early thoughts on the first glimpse of the new season:

Perhaps it's just getting off to an easy start, but the tone seemed marginally gentler than last year's preseason. Last year the show was widely criticized for taking cruelty toward the deluded too far. In Philadelphia it seemed that the balance was weighted toward the human interest stories -- the disabled daughter, the 200-pound weight loss. The judges' cruelty also seemed less gleefully belligerent, more matter-of-fact. Even when they laughed, they apologized. And of course there was the group hug for one loser.

The judges seemed much better rested and less cranky than they were at the start of last season, when they seemed to hit the road immediately fed up and bored.

But cruel as it is to laugh when some deluded, possibly mentally ill or damaged person who thinks they are Paul Robeson is singing in front of you like they are choking on a dinner roll, my gosh, anyone with a pulse would be hard-pressed not to break down during some of these.

In interviews over the last couple of weeks, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has said that there were three singers who would immediately leap out in the auditions as early huge favorites. I am not sure we saw any of them last night, except possibly Chris Watson from Dover, Del., who sang "Follow Me" and whom Simon looked at instantly as though he were a star.

That said, based on one night of singing, I declare Kristie Lee Cook, the Oregon kickboxer, to be the front-runner, although she might be too obviously attractive, which means she can go only as high as ninth place in the finals.

It takes a very self-confident show to close its premiere episode with a voice-over by an extremely strange young lady dressed as Princess Leia who nonetheless offers a pointed and not entirely insane critique of the sameness of "Idol" contestants.

But finally, at the end of the beginning, one must just stand back and note with no tiny amount of awe the capacity of this nation of ours to produce a seemingly limitless supply of very, very strange, very untalented people who are convinced that they are meant to be stars. Where do they all come from? How do they all survive? And where can we see them sing the rest of the year?

This truly is "American Idol." America's journey has begun again.

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