American Idol in Pittsburgh: Judges still too soft

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American Idol glided through Pittsburgh last night without blemish. There weren't any major breakdowns, nor letdowns, nor catty digs at Steven Tyler's wacky facial expressions. No, the Steel City produced a cornucopia of talented, Hollywood-bound contestants -- a whopping 38 in total, with big ambitions and even bigger personalities, who were eclipsed only by the biggest of might-be success stories... Blah, blah, blah... success. Rags to riches. Critics have said it before, and it bears repeating: Idol went all soft when Simon Cowell left.

Last night's episode wasn't just soft. It was flaccid. Playing Justin Bieber's "Baby" over a montage of one kid making his celebratory exit from the audition room to a family full of cheers does not make for memorable television. Even if the boy was fifteen -- and his name was Eben Franckewitz, and he had major bangs, and he pulled out a strong rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine" -- there's no need to dumb down his performance by negatively equating him to Biebs.

But Franckewitz wasn't the only one that Idol failed last night. It also failed Travis Orlando, seventeen. Er, Idol didn't fail Orlando, per se, as he was passed through to the Hollywood round; Idol failed us as viewers. When Jennifer Lopez, Randy Jackson and Tyler passed on the opportunity to "pull a Simon" -- a heartless, odious move that the judges owed all of their anxious viewers last night -- America let out a collective "Come onnnnnnnn, dawg."

Here's how it went down: Upon hearing Orlando's shaky audition, Lopez, Jackson and even Tyler were hesitant about how much Orlando had improved from his previous, unsuccessful audition last season. It was then that, with an air of desperation, Orlando told the judges that Idol was literally his last chance. He dropped out high school. He, his twin and his father were evicted from their apartment AFTER HIS MOTHER LEFT THEM.

So before Orlando told the judges about his awful living situation, they seemed as if they were going to pass on him. And they should have. But after he pulled at their heartstrings a bit, they put him through to Hollywood. It wasn't a talent-based decision by any means; it was a sympathetic one.

If last night's episode was all about contestants who had more than just singing chops -- maybe it was their back story, their suffering or their own Bieberness -- there was one contestant who had more more than anyone else. And that contestant was Samantha Novacek, nineteen. She was pretty and had an even prettier, ready-for-Hollywood voice. Her shtick? A plank-happy sister named Patricia. Amid camera shots of Samantha singing before the judges, we also saw glimpses of her sister Patricia, planking 'til her heart's content. In the audition room. On the floor. Before the judges. Never before had any judge of Idol 2.0 been so right about a contestant's audition than when Jackson had told Patricia to cease the freaking planking. Who would have thought it would take a planker to make Jackson -- and Idol -- finally get stiff.

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