Michael Becker/FOX
February 11, 2011 08:45 AM

“This epic journey,” as host Ryan Seacrest called American Idol‘s Hollywood rounds, began Thursday with 324 contestants – twice the amount than in previous seasons.

Ryan always seems happy to move closer to the action after all those weeks lurking outside the closed doors of hotel conference rooms.

“Nobody gets hurt,” Steven Tyler said to the other judges at the start of the hour. But of course they do.

Luckily, Chris Medina, whose brain-damaged fiancée provided a seriously moving moment in the auditions, made it to the next round. So did Paris Tassin, whose young daughter suffers from hearing loss, and James Durbin, whose troubled story involves Tourette and Asperger syndromes. He hits more high notes than anyone since Adam Lambert – not notes that I really like hearing so much, but never mind for now. He continues on.

Brett Loewenstern, the wiry redhead who during auditions talked about being bullied as a kid, survived – but only after we saw Jennifer Lopez putting her head to her hand and murmuring, “God, this is awful.” Ah, but this was one of those teasing moments of suspense that I always fall for.

The week’s winners of American Irony: Rob Bolin and Chelsee Oaks, the ex-couple who for the most part behave as if they were still a couple, both will sing another day. But Nick Fink and Jacqueline Dunford, the couple who act as if they were the romantic leads in a classic musical, were split apart. Nick got a no from the judges, and Jacqueline got a yes.

“I want to continue with my baby,” Nick pleaded with the judges, asking to sing again. Nope, Randy Jackson ruled, prompting Nick to keep singing from the back of the hall.

He could have taken his cue from Victoria Huggins, that incredibly effusive 17-year-old from the season’s first night. She got the ax – and for a moment she looked like the saddest little person in all the world. But she left smiling, with a very mature level of restraint and dignity. I salute you, Victoria.

Jacee Badeaux, the 15-year-old with the weirdly grownup voice, had the judges tapping their pencils against their mugs in approval. Also getting a yes: brothers Mark and Aaron Gutierrez; White House intern Molly DeWolf; and Scotty McCreery, the kid with the purest country voice I’ve ever heard on the show. He’s phenomenal, at least in these snippets.

And it was farewell to Steve Beghun, primetime’s most melodious accountant; Stormi Henley, former Miss Teen USA; and Travis Orlando, despite a touching story of a tough upbringing and a very fine audition a few weeks ago.

Next week will be the group auditions. Those are always a mess.

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