Let’s just get this part out of the way: the “Idol Gives Back special was a truly amazing undertaking that deserves much applause. Thirty million dollars just from the East Coast feed? That’s astonishing and so very needed. Our hats are off to the Idol producers who took the initiative and the sponsors who kicked in additional funds… respect.

Now, on to more trivial matters. One astute PopWatcher recently commented that it looked as if Melinda Doolittle and Chris Richardson had an extra-special bond. After tonight’s show, I second that with conviction. Sure, it was a tough night for the Justin look-alike. Not only was Chris among the last two standing in the fakeout elimination, but the video clips of poverty-stricken kids were way too much for him to handle. And right there to console him every time the lights went down? Mindy Doo, who kept her hand on his knee while he placed his over it. If it didn’t happen six or seven different times, I’d chalk it up to the hard-hitting images we all had to face (Chris fought back tears with each one), but I suspect there’s more to it.

We’ll get back to Doolittle-Richardson later, but first: the show. As I walked onto the CBS lot, I got the first clues as to who would be there that night. There was a reserved parking spot (the best of the bunch, right next to the talent door) for Rupert Murdoch, another for Seal. I saw Mikalah Gordon making the rounds, and Sanjaya with his gorgeous sister, Shyamali. The two of them were almost the last people to take their assigned seats, which had already been claimed by seat fillers, so there was some people-juggling just before the countdown. Also not in his chair six seconds away from air-time: Simon Cowell. But he did look good in that suit as he casually strolled toward the judges’ table. I guess knowing the next two hours of your life will be emotionally draining doesn’t exactly inspire a sprint.

Of course, by then, the audience had been introduced to the all-dressed-in-whitechorus line that was — and remains — the final six. The Idol who got thebiggest cheer? Unequivocally, Blake.

Ryan tookhis position, then began to deliver his opening lines when he fumbledand decided to start again. “I can’t see that far,” he snapped at the Teleprompter-cameraman (that’s a rarity in Seacrest world), knowingthere’s a delay of just a few minutes. But the consummate prothat he is, Ryan kicked right into gear and it was smooth sailing fromthere. As the contestants took their seats on the blue wiener couches,Blake made guns-blazing hand signals at the audience, Phil lookedconfident, and Jordin was her usual giggly self, while Chris, LaKisha,and Melinda were much more subdued.

The audience was asked ahead oftime not to lift their signs or cheer too wildly as this was a moresomber show, so it was hard to judge the love. But one person who got aridiculously deafening applause was Ellen DeGeneres, who appeared onthe gigantic Idol screen on center stage. Ryan looked relieved to haveEllen take over for a while, after the snafu in the opening. He took aseat off to the side to watch Earth, Wind & Fire’s medley fromDisney Hall, to which Blake grooved and LaKisha snapped along.

A quick commercial and it was time for the night’s first groupperformance. Quincy Jones, who wrote the tune and conducted theorchestra, looked so jazzed up on that Idolstage, blowing kisses to the final six as they hit that last note,almost like a proud papa. Another break allowed hair and makeuptouchups for the contestants. Chris steered clear of Melinda’s hairspray spritz in a flirty kind of way and they looked to be off in aworld of their own.

Ben Stiller’s bit got everyone laughing, especiallyBlake and Simon. The audience also got a kick out of the “StayingAlive” composite, while I was left with just one resounding thought: What was up with Teri Hatcher’s makeup?

It was time to get seriousagain as Ryan prepared to announce the first fates of the final six.Melinda bowed her head, Phil looked unfazed, and LaKisha seemed nervous.They were all safe, of course, in what promised to be the most shockingIdolelimination ever! But one person was especially thrilled to see Melindamake it through another week: Chris.

Il Divo did their thing and many were left wondering, was that English? Bill the Warm-up Guy thought itwould be funny to ask the judges to comment on their performance duringthe break. Simon wasn’t biting, but Randy was totally down with thebass dude. “I like that guy,” he said. With more time to fill, Billymoved on to a girl who had earlier confessed her love for Blake, askingher what she sees as the perfect romantic evening. “A walk on the beachduring sunset,” she replied, to which Bill said, “You’re a cheap date!”Ouch.

At this point, Seal had entered the studio and Simon went over togreet him. At the same time, I spotted Jack Black and Kyle Gass walkingtoward the middle row to take their seats. Tenacious D neverdisappoint, so I had a feeling we’d get a funny moment, probably thebest of the night. Sure enough, the crowd loved it, and so did Seal, Ilater heard, who’d seen Black perform his song “Kiss From a Rose” afew years back and thought it was the best cover of it that he’d everheard. Seal stuck around through the next reveal, but waved goodbyeshortly thereafter.

After that, it was all about Sanjaya, everybody’sgo-to punchline. It was all in good fun, though: Sanjaya exploded withlaughter at Ellen’s crack and, when asked by Debbie the stage managerif he was okay with all the jibing, he nodded that it was cool. Andduring the next break, Sanjaya got warm, big hugs from all the judges.Since all eyes were on him, Bill decided to try a little Q&A.What’s Sanjaya been doing, beside being on every talk show? “I’ve beensleeping a lot,” he said. Sanjaya also added that Kathy Griffin was onhis flight earlier that day. “You know you’ll be in her standup actnow,” said Bill. “I hope so,” Sanjaya shot back. As for what’s next,Sanjaya was suspiciously evasive. “I have a bunch of stuff right now,but I can’t really talk about it; you’ll just have to watch TV to findout.” Hmmm…

Simon, meanwhile,was fielding questions from the audience. “Do people get mad at you onthe street?” asked one woman. “All I received is love,” Simon answered.“[You all] boo, they adore me.” Another asked about his and Ryan’s tripto Africa. “You don’t feel sorry for yourself anymore,” said Simon.

What came next was a moment that, I think, marred the entire evening.Of course, I’m referring to the Celine Dion-Elvis Presley adventures-in-CGI debacle. Was that really necessary? I don’t think I was the onlyone sitting there horrified; you could hear the dismay of audiencemembers as they talked through the “performance.” And did you allnotice that the group of dressed-in-white Idols who came in toward theend included Sanjaya? An embarrassment all around.

Performances byKelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Annie Lennox, on the other hand,were met by more enthusiasm despite some wardrobe misses — Kelly’sunflattering gown, Annie Lennox’s revealing top (thank God fordouble-stick tape), not to mention Paula’s constantly falling strap.But the much-hyped elimination changed the focus almost immediately.Jordin sat looking zen, while Chris seemed a tad more confident, andwhen his name was called, there was an audible gasp from a crowd thatfeared the worst. Pysch! Still, there was no time for makeup as Melindaand Jordin teared up in a warm embrace. Bono was up on the screen andthe Idols had to take their positions for the final group performance.This time, the lyrics to “American Prayer” (co-written by Dave Stewart)were displayed on the Teleprompter since the group had little time tolearn them. And with Randy clapping along and the audience on theirfeet, it was an appropriate closing to an ambitious and very long show.Even Blake looked beat and started yawning toward the end. But therewas one person there with boundless energy: the unstoppable Sanjaya,who signed dozens of autographs as the audience filed out, once againcreating a scene.