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'Idol's' week of dread and drama

The field will be pared to the final 36, and it's a good bet many

February 11, 2009|Richard Rushfield

Throughout its season, "American Idol's" executioner proceeds at an almost stately pace, dispatching a contestant a week to his or her greater reward and then taking a full week to catch his breath. But before contestants can enjoy such luxury, they first must survive Hollywood Week -- the demolition derby of the "Idol" season.

During Hollywood Week's four-episode run, which ends tonight with the mega-drama of the Green Mile episode, 140 young aspiring singers, freshly plucked from the tens of thousands who lined up to audition around the country, face their first true "Idol" test.

For the one-quarter who make the cut, the week will mark their transition from wannabes to genuine contenders for stardom. And for the viewers, Hollywood Week marks the greatest pure drama we will see all season -- rife with breakdowns, breakups, catfights and name-calling.

"It's my favorite part of the season because it's when you still have enough kids that it's fun," said "Idol's" co-executive producer (and head of Fremantle North America) Cecile Frot-Coutaz in a telephone interview. "You still have some train wrecks and car crashes and all of that stuff. . . . But, more importantly, it's the first time when you really start to figure out who you like.

"The reality is that it's one thing to see the kids sing a cappella in a hotel room on the road to seeing them step onstage at the Kodak Theatre. That's when you start to see the men from the boys, seeing if people can really handle this or not."

Tonight, Hollywood Week concludes with a full show with no singing, no performance, just the raw spectacle of each singer (or, in some cases, two at a time) standing before the judges and learning whether they have made it to the next show. In a season that has seen a great many tweaks in its format and production elements, viewers can expect surprises tonight as well.

"This year we're doing that a bit differently," Frot-Coutaz said. "It's going to take place in a mansion and then some of the kids have to sing for their life. If the judges have doubts, we have one kid sing against another. It's a little sing-off."

And as for what viewers can expect as the field is pared to the final 36, Frot-Coutaz talked about a surprising new demographic that emerges among the contestants. "What we have had happen over the years is, you know, we had Blake Lewis and the following year there were a lot of bad beat-boxers that came through," Frot-Coutaz said. "With Bo [Bice] and Constantine [Maroulis], we had a lot of rockers come through. This year it's a lot of girls, a lot of Amy Winehouse- type girls. Everyone was an Amy Winehouse fan."

Responding to the buzz thus far, that the tone has been gentler than in years past when sometimes a chain saw seemed to be applied to hapless auditioners, Frot-Coutaz said: "I think the shows are a bit warmer. I think you have a bit more light and shade this year. It's just not as sarcastic and cynical. I think that they're genuinely focusing more on the better singers."

But before they get any more warmth, each must walk the Green Mile.

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richard.rushfield@latimes .com

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