After a so-so night in Philadelphia that featured a dirty grandpa, a Broadway star sharing a gut-wrenching backstory and an apathetic off-the-wall show-stealing musician best described as the presumed offspring of Firestarter and Wooderson, American Idol is returning both to its undesirable two-hour audition show format and two cities previously showcased in the first and second episodes of Season 15.

Grasping for Straws

But before we head back to Denver and Little Rock, I need some feedback regarding the tragic tale of John Arthur Greene. In addition to the fact that many recaps and reviews I’m seeing around the digital landscape are full of praise (and exclamation points) for the apparently incredible talent thus far in Season 15, there also appears to be quite a bit of sympathy for the man who accidentally shot and killed his brother when he was 8.

I’m certainly not taking anything away from what he’s been through because it’s obviously an unimaginable experience, but this is a dude who is currently on Broadway in Matilda, made his Great White Way debut in West Side Story and appeared in Peter Pan Live. He is also married to gorgeous soap-turned-film actress Mackenzie Mauzy, best known for Into the Woods and The Bold and the Beautiful. So he seems to be doing pretty well for himself. I’m not doubting his talent, but what the hell is he doing on American Idol?

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Furthermore, why does the daughter of a bonafide 80s chart topper known as the “Freestyle Queen” need such a platform to get famous? Brenda K. Starr may deal mostly in Salsa these days (and she’s only been nominated for a Latin Grammy), but there’s no way she needs Scott Borchetta and America’s votes to get her daughter in front of a record producer. I’m pretty sure she has a few connections. (And honey, Mariah is single now. She’ll help out.)

In all honesty, though, finding out about Greene’s resume made me feel a little squeamish about rooting for him, because it gives the impression that he’s using the story to advance his career. So did Idol just want the emotion and not care that he’s not “undiscovered”? Are they that desperate for talent? I am very interested in how other viewers felt, so please let me know in the comments section below.

But back to the matter at hand, as it’s time to revisit rocks that are either small or a mile up in the sky. But like Step By Step, will the talent be better the second time around? Let’s break it down.

The Contenders

We start off back in Denver, where Amber Lynn and guitarist James VIII (James the Eighth) are first up in the spotlight. They’re good friends who Ryan Seacrest predicts will be in love within a year, and they’ll be auditioning together but separately. Amber Lynn has immense potential, but Harry criticizes James for rushing the accompaniment on her bluesy audition. James VIII’s voice is raw, but he’s a fun performer, and so they’ll have some time to nurture that relationship in Hollywood. 

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Then it’s back to Little Rock, where we meet tatted up Chris “C.J.” Johnson and his sleeveless T-shirt. He’s been a professional musician for more than a decade, but he’s the non-glamorous type who’s been humbly battling the grind without much notoriety. His rendition of Hall and Oates “You Make My Dreams Come True” is spot on and full of laid-back confidence, and he’s likable to boot. The only thing working against him is that white guys with guitars are notoriously voted off early. 

Mary Williams continues the trend of southern charm, as she explains with a twang that her two loves are horses and music and that she just won a world championship on a foxtrotting mule. (Can’t make this stuff up, folks.) She’s got a big and pretty voice, and she busts out some old-school Tammy Wynette to punch her ticket even though Keith felt it was more performance than profession. 

Tommy Stringfellow has One Direction hair and is playing for the foster kids, and he brought an entourage of supporters along for the ride. He sings Ed Sheeran in British and I can’t understand anything he’s saying, but it all sounds pleasant and very James Blunt-esque. The judges appreciate his artistry and his cool guitarist name.

John Wayne Schulz is a big, handsome cowboy who auditioned five seasons ago, when it came down to him and Scotty McCreery for the last spot in the live shows. I think you know how that went. His mom passed away from breast cancer a few months later, and so it took him a little while to get back on the wagon. This is his last chance light a fire in his belly, and his sweet rendition of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” pays tribute to his mom and earns him a return trip to Hollywood.  

After reminding viewers that Idol once rejected Tori Kelly even before America was able to chime in with voting, it’s on to Jordyn Simone, who hopes to channel the now-Grammy nominated sensation. She has raw ability, but she overdoes the runs by a mile and comes across to me as believing she is already perfect. The judges are overwhelmed by how mature this 15-year-old looks and by her “complete variety of skills,” and they wish there was something higher than “yes.” If she can reign it in a bit, she has potential to go far in the competition. 

Hawaiian Ashley Lilinoe sleepily saunters into the room and confuses the judges by describing her years in relation to earth rotations around the sun before launching into a haunting rendition of “Black Velvet” that gives me goose bumps. The male judges like her mystery and guitar skills, and even though J-Lo wanted more, she’s through with two yeses. 

The final audition of the night comes out of Little Rock courtesy 27-year-old Elvie Shane, who has battled drug addition since he was 16. Getting arrested was a low point, but meeting his wife Mandy and her 5-year-old son (who looks like a country version of Liam Neeson’s boy in Love Actually) inspired him to clean up and make changes. His “House of the Rising Sun” starts off middle of the road but picks up once he starts strumming along, and you can tell the guitar is a source of comfort. I’m not blown away, but he’s definitely earned his spot even though I’m unsure how far he can go.  

The Mixed-Bag Good

Fifteen-year-old Ethan Kuntz trains hunting dogs in Nashville, Arkansas, and he elicits an “awww” from everyone the first time they see him. He also calls everyone “sir” and “ma’am.” Blues and southern rock are his genres, and his “Stormy Monday” shows off a rather unexpected power in his voice that the judges and J-Lo in particular love. Harry thinks he sounds too young and isn’t ready, and even though Keith agrees, he gives him another shot based on the quality of his voice. It is, after all, the farewell season.

Terrian is 18 and comes from a bad neighborhood in Memphis, and music is her outlet to drown out the gunshots. She wants to make it to Hollywood to bring a positive influence to her hood, but her voice just isn’t that strong. Plus, she sings Pharrell’s “Happy,” and Harry points out that the best part of the performance was accidental in nature. Which apparently equals three yeses. 

Flip-flop back to Denver, where Keith Urban plays a sidewalk set for spare change that Harry steals. Then it’s on to dance teacher Tywan Jackson, aka Tank, who is hoping his large stature, personality and “Tankersize” workout (which he developed as he approached 400 bills) will impress the judges. He warms them up with a dance routine before launching into Luther Vandross’ “Superstar,” and he’s got a big voice that he doesn’t quite know how to use properly. He ends up sweaty and out of breath, and I initially wrote this in the “good but not good enough” group below before he inexplicably gets three “yeses.” There were some cringe-worthy moments, but I guess likability matters.

Kassy Levels butchers her runs and scream sings, while Rhea Raj overemphasizes her breathy-ness, but both are going through with praise. Kassy actually made me cringe at the end of each line, yet Keith believes she is “born to sing.”

Jake Dillon is a plumber’s apprentice chasing his dreams and singing for his wife and kids, and his country take on Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song” is solid if not a little flat. It’s a bit lacking for Harry and Keith, but despite the former’s “no,” Keith puts him through based on his drive and passion.

Born in New York but raised in Moscow, Andrew Nazarbekian mixes high points and the low in a theater-friendly rendition of “To Make You Feel My Love.” He’s headed to Hollywood, in part to see how he fits in with the rest of the competition. 

The Good But Not Quite Good Enough

Emily Wears is a 25-year-old professional auctioneer who sounds like the Micro Machines guy, but after 10 days of auction school when she was 17, she’s ready to branch out. She has a sweet country voice but dips in and out of tune, especially on the big notes. Harry thinks that there’s a lot of nice tones, but the vocals need work. J-Lo doesn’t see a lot of power or control, and Keith focuses on the pitch issues. But at least it gives the judges an opportunity to talk fast, which they do quite poorly.

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Blue is the color of her hair, eyes and dress, but also her name, and Leann “Blue” McIsaac is a singing nomad hippie with a septum hoop who followed the wind to her audition. She writes a song on the spot based on the judges’ names and a word they provide, and it’s cute at best, in part because what she’s doing is so distracting that you can’t pay attention to the sweetness in her voice. Still, she makes the judges happy because she elicits smiles, and they’re grateful that a person like her exists. But it’s a “no.”

The Bad

Back in Denver, Ryan helps the judges bust out of their sleepy spell with cans of pure oxygen. It wakes them up just in time for 26-year-old Denver Nuggets hype-man Xavier Soller, who starts off with an American Idol Hotshot Tournament in which the judges shoot tiny basketballs at a tiny hoop. J-Lo gets a lucky bounce for the win before Xavier shower-sings “Friends in Low Places.”

Leah Harbert is a self-taught singer who learned from Britney Spears yet has trouble walking in 1-inch heels. She attempts to belt out some Aretha Franklin, and I would not be surprised if she has a literal frog in her throat. They eventually stop her, but it goes on for far too long. She thanks them for their “opinions,” and then blames allergies. 

That’s it from Colorado and Arkansas, and Idol was definitely holding back in previous episodes. There were quite a few standouts and several others who advanced on potential (though a few duds made it through, as well), and maybe there’s hope for Philly after all. 

The curtain drops on American Idol auditions for the final time next week, signaling the end of an era and the beginning of the part of the competition that actually matters. Stay tuned. 

American Idol airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm on FOX.

(Image and video courtesy of FOX)

Bill King

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

Emmy-winning news producer & former BuddyTV blogger. Lover of Philly sports, Ned, Zoe, Liam and Delaine…not in that order