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American Idol host Ryan Seacrest.

American Idol’s stop in Memphis — the heart of the deep-fried, sour mash, pan gravy-covered heartland of Idol finalists — began with what seemed like a conciliatory gesture to everyone scarred by last week’s parade of tuneless grotesques in Minneapolis and Seattle.

The first contestant was rejected for having a merely melodic delivery, and he responded as only a college cheerleading coach could — with a cheer and a brass fanfare. If you were feeling a bit dizzy, it was only the sensation of Idol being spun into a more benevolent light.

Things head downhill from there until Memphis produces a ringer named Sundance Head, the son of a somewhat obscure R&B singer named Roy Head who had one very nice hit in the mid ’60s, and who puts blisters all over Stormy Monday. “He just blew Taylor out of the park,” mutters judge Simon Cowell after he leaves the room. Thanks, cheese — couldn’t this have happened a year ago?

I was hoping to stay upbeat about last night’s show, until one Topher McCain, recently divorced from his wife, showed up with a lot of Dr. Phil’s self-help philosophy and carrying a torch for judge Paula Abdul. At this point, you might be able to accuse the show of wanton cruelty to the pitiful, but something about Topher’s “please kick me” demeanor made his minor national humiliation seem somehow delicious, which I’m sure is a sin, God help me.

The next gold pass to Hollywood is given a contestant who looks like a cross between Fidel Castro and a dirty hippie; you just knew that the judges were relishing the thought of forcing him through the meat grinder of Idol stylists and hairdressers waiting for him in California. He’s followed by Melinda, a professional background singer with a self-confidence problem. She’s such an obvious bit of drama in the making that you can almost hear the producers’ relief when it turns out she can sing.

The producers get a final gift from Phil, whose wife gave birth the night before, and who delivers a Temptations song just well enough to get Paula and Randy Jackson behind him. The show ends in his wife’s hospital room, with a shot of a pink, puffy-eyed newborn to distract us from what was considered, at the end of last week, to be the meanest Idol ever. Chill out, people — wook at the widdow baby.

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