It takes two to make a thing go wrong: Real-life couple's drama dominates 'American Idol' duets round

ABC viewers could be forgiven for mistaking Sunday night’s American Idol Hollywood Week episode for the premiere of the network’s new musical Bachelor spinoff, Listen to Your Heart. For the first time in Idol history, the usual Group Round was replaced with a duets challenge, and when real-life couples blurred the lines between the personal and the professional, drama ensued — especially between Margie Mays and Jonny West.

Judge Katy Perry had already warned Margie that competing in the same Idol season with her boyfriend of three years, Jonny, might strain their relationship. And as the two teamed up this week for the perhaps all-too-prophetically titled “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” it seemed Katy was right. Margie, a returning contestant, was a go-with-the-flow Hollywood Week veteran, having sailed through to the top 40 last year, but Jonny was a newbie. And as Jonny became increasingly overwhelmed by the Hollywood Week process, Margie worried that his “stressed energy” was messing with her. “This is harder than being with a stranger,” she moaned.

Unfortunately Margie seemed more preoccupied with soothing Jonny’s nerves rather than with her own success, and as a result, everything about their duet felt edgy and tense. The chemistry one would expect from these usually giddy lovebirds was completely absent. What a disappointment for both singers — especially since Margie might have squandered her rare second chance. While they both “barely passed” this round, based on their overall track records, Katy offered them some sage love advice gleamed from her own successful relationship with fiancé Orlando Bloom: “One thing I’ve noticed that is very helpful is giving each other a little space. In this competition, it’s great to have understanding and partnership and to be teammates and support each other, but this time is about fulfilling your personal dreams. Just know your priorities right now, because I think both of you kind of suffered.”

As for Season 18’s other real-life cute couple, Kat Luna and Alex "Space Cowboy" Garrido, only one of them will be fulfilling a personal Idol dream this year. Though the two were all goopy for each other during their first audition — when they sang “Shallow” and gazed all googly-eyed at each other like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper on Oscars night — this week when they performed “You Say,” their dynamic was off. Only Kat made it through, but Alex seemed genuinely happy for her; if anything, it was Kat who was crestfallen by the news. Hopefully she can make through the rest of the season with her cowboy’s support.

But we may have a new showmance this season, between Aliana Jester and previously unseen contestant YZthaSinger. These two had just met, yet the attraction between them during their own, much more vibey version of “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” was impossible to ignore. They positively sizzled the screen, and they looked damn good together. “Y’all are like a celebrity couple coming out here!” said judge Luke Bryan. “Oh Lord, you’re going to get me in trouble,” giggled a blushing Aliana. Yes, unfortunately for YZthaSinger, Aliana already has a serious boyfriend. (“If she were single, I would definitely pursue that,” he admitted.) But they’re both staying in Hollywood for now, so who knows what might happen? I have a feeling Idol producers are going to be shipping these two, hard.

As for the other duets of Hollywood Week day two, some were power couples, and others were just odd couples. I had expected this format to have less drama and conflict than the Group Rounds of yore, but that was not the case. There were the usual personality conflicts and arguments, along with the potential for one contestant to sabotage the other, kind of like Mimi Imfurst dragging down Pandora Boxx in RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 1.

Take poor Madison Paige and her teammate, slacker Peyton Aldridge. This was a far more egregious example of a man thwarting a woman’s chances than the above-mentioned Jonny/Margie situation. First, Peyton flaked on their rehearsal because he was too busy roaming the Hollywood streets in search of non-vegetarian gas station chicken wings. Everyone on the show — other than Madison, of course — acted like this was some adorable country-bumpkin narrative, but I, like Madison herself, was incensed; I thought Peyton was totally disrespectful and unprofessional.

Then, and the last minute, Peyton made an executive decision to ditch the piano accompaniment during their disconnected performance of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” (a song Madison had been forced to pick while Peyton was missing in action); he forgot the words; and he went off and improv’d a bunch of guitar lines that threw Madison out of sync. Yet the judges all too easily forgave Peyton’s lyrical flub (they did that a lot on this episode; Simon Cowell or Nicki Minaj would’ve never put up with that). This seemed like another pop-culture example of an average white dude bumbling through life with a minimum of effort, the American Idol equivalent of that Ed Sheeran/Beyoncé meme. But, in Peyton’s defense, at least he manned up and took responsibility for messing up, and he even begged the judges to give Madison another shot. The judges were so moved that they decided to put both of them through, so hopefully Peyton will get his own priorities in order and put the show — and his fellow contestants — above any chicken-wing cravings.

Zack Dobbins wasn’t so apologetic. While the inexperienced musician didn’t seem to be taking the competition seriously, even wondering aloud why he’d even made it this far, his beleaguered partner, single mom Courtney Timmons, considered this the chance of a lifetime and wanted it more than anything. After switching their song choice three times and Zack getting sternly scolded by their vocal coach Adriana McPhee (Katharine’s sister) for his lack of dedication, they somehow ended up with Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” at the last minute. Zack’s arrangement was cool and could have been his Phillip Phillips moment, but by the time they dragged themselves to the stage, both singers already seemed defeated and exhausted. Zack forgot the words and chords and just shrugged it off; Courtney looked miserable throughout. Lionel lectured Zack about committing the “entertainer’s sin” of giving up onstage, yet the judges sent both contestants home. Zack seemed unfazed, but poor Courtney was devastated. Yet another case of a mediocre man dragging a good woman down!

There were other examples of unequal partnerships during this round, with different results. When the characteristically nervous Francisco Martin forgot his lyrics while dueting with fellow frontrunning singer-songwriter Louis Knight on “Breakeven,” Louis demonstrated great sportsmanship and propped Francisco up, carrying them both through to victory. Robert Taylor and Tito Rey had a similar bromance going on (they considered themselves “vocal twins”), but their ridiculous “Say So” duet was filled with so many focus-pulling vocal acrobatics that they nearly sabotaged each other, and only Robert survived to sing another day.

There were other eliminations that I certainly didn’t see coming, at least not this soon. Just last week, the gushing judges had “chillbumps” over Jordan Moyes, but when Jordan sang Kings of Leon’s Use Somebody” with another one of the judges’ favorites, Franklin Boone, only Franklin went through. Ren Patrick got a lot of screentime during her audition episode, and she seemed to be doing all the heavy lifting during her “Shallow” duet with some guy named Cameron Haven, yet Cameron stayed while Ren was cut. And I’d expected great things from a “Mama’s Broken Heart” duet by country powerhouses Hannah Prestridge and Grace Leer, but the sassy Grace completely upstaged the more reserved (and subsequently eliminated) Hannah.

Thankfully, there were plenty of standout partnerships that worked wonderfully. Fellow Louisianans Jovin Webb and Faith Becnel, who clicked instantly and vowed to remain lifelong friends, absolutely slayed “It's A Man's Man's, Man's World,” an interesting and almost confrontational choice for their fiery coed duet. And Perrin York and Landon Starkman’s “Breakeven” was “extremely moving” and “so believable,” as Lionel put it. (Side note: What was up with all these repeat song choices? Did ABC cut the show’s clearance budget this season or something?)

Teen divas Cyniah Elise and Makayla Phillips, the “Whitney and Mariah” of Season 18, were a formidable force on “The Prayer,” inspiring Luke to rave, “That was like a movie!” We also finally got a glimpse of former Voice contestant Elyjuh René, who made effective use of his deferred screentime alongside Kimmy Gabriela on a powerful rendition of Rihanna’s “Stay.” I’d expected clairvoyant Jimmy Levy and wannabe heartthrob Nick Merico’s duet to be a catastrophe, but they actually gelled. And Lionel Richie described Lauren Spencer-Smith and Makayla Brownlee’s “Set Fire to the Rain” as a “course in how to blend two different voices.”

The night ended with Just Sam and Shenei Maisonet doing Shawn Mendes’s “Mercy,” and while I’d worried that this would be another disastrous duet (Sam suffered an anxiety attack during rehearsal and even required medical attention), they pulled it together and pulled off an emotional performance that Katy described as “pretty flawless.” Said Lionel, “You’re giving us drama. To sing the song is one thing. To act the song… is everything.”

The final night of Hollywood Week airs Monday, when the contestants, for better or worse (but probably better), will once again go it alone. Will Margie and Jonny’s romance survive? Will Aliana and YZthaSinger’s showmance thrive? Watch this space.

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