Avril Lavigne, Neil Patrick Harris, and the Ultimate Idol Contestant

Avril Lavigne with Simon Cowell on American Idol 

After nearly a decade of watching American Idol auditions, I think I am finally close to mapping the genome of the ultimate contestant. And I’m convinced that deep in the bowels of Fox’s secret laboratories, mad scientists are currently using DNA from this week’s cast of characters to engineer the perfect Idol storm: a girl named Christian (No … no special symbolism, why do you ask?) from a Southern farm ghetto (because with the recession and all, it’ll just be more efficient to have all the poor folks in one place) who has survived cancer, or at least a really bad papercut, and also the divorce of her gangsta parents to become a dock worker and “worship pastor” (Are there other kinds of pastors? Pastors for online shopping, maybe, or scuba diving?) raising her 14 beautiful children. Christian will have the voice of Melinda Doolittle, the legs of Carrie Underwood, and the eyeliner of Adam Lambert, and she will know how to work a hoodie with little devil horns.

We’re already seeing hints of such an amalgamation, with this week’s glut of curious portmanteau names—Todrick (both Tod and Rick! and a Broadway colleague of Fantasia!), Maegan, and Dawntoya—and that bizarre moment when Project Runway’s Daniel Franco fantasized that he was the love child of Adam Lambert and Susan Boyle. Like everyone else, I am mystified as to what Daniel was doing auditioning for Idol, but he did make me think about how Tim Gunn would totally make it work if he replaced Simon Cowell. Even the judges’ edges are starting to blur; last week, Kara appropriated Simon’s “I’m not trying to be rude …” and yesterday Simon gave poor Julie Kevelighan a nostalgically familiar “Sorry, sweetheart.” I hope he was just missing Paula as much as I am, because I don’t ever want to hear him say, “Dawg, you can blow.”

Julie’s audition, a comeback she’d cultivated since her ridicule way back in that first Idol summer of 2002, nearly did my head in, but not because of her singing—I cannot properly wrap my head around the idea that this show has been part of our lives for nine years. Equally discomfiting were Tuesday’s children, waiting around for their mothers or sisters to sing, who have never known life without Idol. One told Ryan that she would be a contestant when she reached 16. For her, American Idol is just a given, a constant like the sun rising and setting, or Ryan’s tan. Better set your sights on X Factor 2018 instead, though, sweetie. And what about Maegan Wright’s little brother, named Dawson? Is he the harbinger of a generation named after teen TV personas, a future in which the kindergarten teachers of 2014 will welcome a sudden slew of little Krises and Adams and Anoops? (Don’t look at me; I’m naming my first three children Simon, Randy, and Paula. Paula Ryan.)

There’s a lot in a name, and there were some standouts in the avalanche of “Yeses” with large and small y’s. We heard Chris Golightly, whose effortless musicality did not prevent my mind from wandering to thoughts of breakfast, and then Tiffany’s. His sincerely touching story, though, was jarringly dismissed by tiny, ruthless guest judge Katy Perry as a “Lifetime movie.” Then there was Mary Powers—a solid, strong name and a voice to match—identified by that other tiny, ruthless guest judge Avril Lavigne as authentically punk rock, and that is a little like Joe Lieberman naming someone an authentic Democrat … but I like Avril, even if she seemed sort of embarrassed to be on Idol. Not embarrassed at all was Neil Patrick Harris, who enthusiastically filled in the first panel in Dallas and sent through “Overjoyed” Lloyd Thomas, jazzy Kimberly Carver, and Erica Rhodes, formerly part of Barney the Dinosaur’s entourage and currently disguised as a refugee from some Rihanna show (because dominatrix is the opposite of childhood, and you would run as far from Barney as you could, too). Harris also helped along Dave Pittman, whose voice I loved, and I knew that Tourette’s joke last week would come back to bite me. Of course it’s a terrible and complicated thing to deal with, and I hope Dave is as successful as other singers I know who deal with it through music.

Though second-day judge Joe Jonas didn’t add much to the audition process, he did offset the pop-princess callousness of Avril and Katy, and Kara has worked with the Brothers before, so they at least got along OK. Actually, this week everyone seemed pretty chummy, with Randy even defending Simon from Jason “I Touch Myself” Green, shouting, “Hey! Don’t hit on my friend!” Ryan fended Jason off, too, and took a last panicky opportunity before Hollywood and the watchful eye of Ellen to reaffirm his heterosexuality, hastily passing on the flirty singer’s phone number to someone else and then openly leering at the Cowboys cheerleaders. Twice. I’m hoping that Ellen’s presence will put an end once and for all to Simon and Ryan’s “You’re gay! No, you’re gay! And a girl!” shtick. Sadly, though, Simon has already made Ellen’s shtick list, recently arriving 90 minutes late to the Idol set and earning the title “prima donna” from the newest judge. Don’t tell Ryan, or we’ll never hear the end of it.

And Ryan, it appears, will not be taking over for Simon in 2011—though at this point, rather than ask who might be in line for the soon-to-be-vacant judging seat, we might ask who is not. The list of speculative potentials has so far included everyone from Tommy Mottola to Madonna, Elton John, Ben Folds, Piers Morgan, Jamie Foxx, and, horrifyingly, destroyer of youth and joy Kanye West. But really, with all the network unrest, and a particular hire Fox made this month, it could be worse. Think on that, and I’ll see you next week for Denver.