The boys compete in the Hollywood rounds on "American Idol." (Michael Becker / Fox )
It's Hollywood Week on "American Idol." That usually means we're in for some drama and tension, especially during the dreaded group round – scenes of stressed-out contestants strolling around looking for kindred spirits, flashes of anger, exhaustion, frustration, desperation, tears.
Last year, we got sickness and swooning, ambulances, a deep-voiced cowboy amusingly facing off with a smart-mouthed urbanite, our first twang of concern about eventual winner Phillip Phillips' kidney-stone troubles.
This year, we got a gender divide that brought us only the boys (the girls will perform next week) -- and yes, a few tears (poor Frankie Ford), some forgotten lyrics, a little tension, but alas, nothing major. We were deprived the strolling-around segment, the inevitable lone singer looking for a group with which to fit in. That's because this season, for the first time, the groups were preselected by the producers and not assembled on the fly by the contestants themselves.
These teams had, at least in some cases, clearly been constructed to foster drama. Why else throw in the Jason Aldean-loving military types (Trevor Blakney and Lee Pritchard) with the fabulous diva dudes (JDA and Joel Wayman)? (Though they did come up with the perfect name: Country Queen.) Or mix the socially awkward (Charlie Askew) and the shamefully ambitious (Curtis Finch Jr.)?
Yet the groups proved less combustible than you might think -- or than the producers may have hoped.
At the outset, we were promised shocking eliminations. But in many cases, what proved more shocking were the mistake-making singers the judges let sail through. There was a lot of sympathizing at the judges' table -- Nicki Minaj is a sucker for a sassy misfit, Mariah Carey for a struggle to overcome adversity -- but not a lot of tough love. Even Randy Jackson seemed to have given up his quest to maintain standards.
It wasn't until after all the contestants in a group calling themselves B Side (Gurpreet Singh Sarin, Mark LaDuke, Chris Watson and Peter Garrett) not only made it through, but also received major kudos from Minaj, despite a train wreck of a performance of Maroon 5's "Payphone," that nice-guy Keith Urban finally suggested it might be time to raise the bar a bit.
"Adam Levine is still alive and he's already turning in his grave," Urban said.
Still, low or high, the bar proved insurmountable for some of the singers who had captured attention during auditions. At the end of the crowd-culling solo rounds, we'd said goodbye to quirky "ginger" Karl Skinner, Baton Rouge firefighter Dustin Watts, singing doctor Calvin Peters and Brian Rittenberry, the big-hearted big guy whose wife had survived a serious struggle with cancer. Other audition faves meanwhile, managed to shine. Among them: Micah Johnson, whose speech impediment disappears when he sings; Nate Tao, who one hopes has by now proved to his deaf parents that he can sing; artful scream-singer Gabe Brown, and Gurpreet "Turbinator" Singh Sarin.
Eliminated during the group round were Kayden Stephenson, the ever-upbeat 16-year-old with cystic fibrosis, who pledged to return next year, and subway singer Frankie Ford, who also vowed to return -- though his sobbing departure was anything but upbeat.
In better news, David Leathers Jr., who was shockingly eliminated last year just before the live shows, is back. Good to see the talented teen giving it another go. Let's see how he and the rest of the lucky group-round survivors fare Thursday, when they again sing solo.
Will Papa Peachez turn to jelly? Will Lazaro Arbos and Matheus Fernandes prove they have more to offer than heart-tugging backstories, as the competition heats up? Which 20 guys will move on? We'll soon find out.