Michael Becker/FOX
Tom Gliatto
February 17, 2011 08:05 AM

American Idol‘s dreaded two-hour “group night” has to be got through, both by the contestants – 168, at the start of the show – and the audience. Watching the singers break down into competing groups (breaking down emotionally, too) is like watching a Discovery nature documentary about the feeding and migratory habits of some melodic but sleep-deprived species.

Consider the tribulations of poor Jacee Badeaux, 15. He was thrown out of one group and doomed to wander off in shame, presumably because he was considered too ungainly and unsophisticated to do any dance moves. He was drafted into Brett Loewenstern’s group instead and acquitted himself nicely on “Mercy” – a song he’d never even heard before group night. (Although, true, he can’t dance.) He sobbed like a grateful Oliver Twist when the judges gave him (and his new group) good news. I hope millions of young Americans appreciated this little parable about tolerance and perseverance.

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The story would be more meaningful if Clint Jun Gambao, who was shown orchestrating Jacee’s ouster, was himself ousted in turn. But that didn’t happen. Oh well.

The night was the first time Rob Bolin and his ex, Chelsee Oaks, sang together, only now with the Nick Fink-less Jacqueline Dunford. Rob, who was not exactly a basket of sunshine during rehearsals, substituted lyrics about being too tired to remember lyrics during their performance of Cee Lo Green’s “[Forget] You.” Chelsee and Jacqueline stayed, but Rob did not. His attempt at subversive irony did not wow the judges.

Chelsee didn’t seem too bummed that they were now to be torn further asunder.

Tiffany Rios – or, in Ryan Seacrest‘s description, “our colorful Jersey girl” – was paired with Jessica Yantz for the night’s only duet. Tiffany had trouble recruiting anyone else to work with her, perhaps because of her boasts about her own talent. She and Jessica were “really bad,” as Randy Jackson succinctly and accurately put it. “It’s the end of line.” Now that’s a parable.

During rehearsals, the emotionally volatile Ashley Sullivan looked as if she’d spent a week running from zombies. She was so overwhelmed, she temporarily quit the whole shebang. Maybe she’s one of those performers who need to torture themselves with doubt? And yet her girl-group’s cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” was one of the best numbers of the night. She sang well, and even acted out the lyrics well. Still, I can’t imagine watching so much drama week after week.

In what must be an Idol first, Steven Tyler was called on to the stage to be serenaded with “Some Kind of Wonderful” by a female quartet including Lauren Alaina. (“Yes, I am!” – wonderful, that is – he wailed on the chorus.) “Very cute, very original,” said Jennifer Lopez. Yet Lauren – who’s 15, and good – was the only one who got the judges’ nod. The other girls were quite nice about their rejection before heading for the exits like failed Bachelorettes.

The judges gave a standing ovation to a teenage group that had been put through their rehearsal paces by their mothers. (Actually, why are parents still hanging around at this point of the competition?) They sang Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” with Deandre Brackensick nailing a piercing high note.

Gone: Paris Tassin, who with her hearing-impaired daughter was one of the season’s heartfelt stories; Aaron Gutierrez, whose brother Mark stays on; and Matt Dillard, the farm dude who’d impressed in Nashville (he forgot lyrics, a cardinal sin on Idol). Even worse was Steven Clawson, who had a cheat sheet on his palm. Bye!

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