Tuesday night after the show, I ran into Randy Jackson at BLD, a fabulous restaurant down the road from CBS Television City, and he had this to say: “David Cook. That kid has got a future. I didn’t believe it until tonight. I thought he was just one of those rockers with a good voice, but man, he could be the one.”

With this endorsement still ringing in my ear, I walked into Idol’s famed Stage 36 confident in the knowledge that he, for one, was definitely not going home. And neither was David Archuleta, despite his apparent song choice stumble, or Michael Johns, who gets the popular vote for hottie of the season. What I didn’t expect was to see Jason Castro in the bottom three, and Ramiele safe on the couch!

It was indeed a night of surprises, albeit minor and not exactly shocking, and it all started with a surprise locked door a half hour before the show’s start. Generally, the good folks at Fox who provide the audience tickets want you in your assigned seat by 35 minutes ’till. And being the diligent, responsible reporter that I am (on a good day, at least), I get there at 5:20, my ass fully prepared for another 95 minute sitting session. But after giving up my Blackberry, phone, iPod, camera, and all other worldly possessions, I’m told that we can’t go in to watch the pre-tape of Kimberley Locke’s (pictured) performance. Instead, we have to wait outside, cellphone-less, until 5:45. So there will be no recapping of Kimberley’s “Fall,” though the hum of it sounded pleasant enough from the other side of the wall.

With 15 minutes to go, and people still filing into the bleacher area, the scene on and off stage was a bit chaotic. Corey skipped the usual crowd banter and helped Debbie take control. I spotted singer Natasha Bedingfield dash for her seat, not far from Danny Noriega, who made a repeat appearance, and ex-contestants Constantine Maroulis and Gina Glocksen (hosts of Fox Reality’s American Idol Extra show) who were seated together. As my luck would have it, I’m again surrounded by first-timers marveling at how the room looks bigger on TV, but they were friendly enough.

Four minutes away from show time, and there are still no judges in sight. Two minutes later, the Idols are brought on stage and positioned just so. Once again, David Archuleta summons the loudest cheers and the most signs, but Jason Castro is not far behind. Ryan takes his spot, then Debbie reminds the audience to go crazy when Kimberley Locke is mentioned. “The people in New York don’t know you’ve been here for five hours,” she jokes. The lights dim, and the judges sneak their way into the studio with seconds to spare. It’s time. Cue Ryan: “Thisssssssss… is American Idol.”

addCredit(“Kimberley Locke: F Micelotta/Getty Images”)

Now, is it just me, or does Ryan’s pregnant pause (yes, I learned that term watching Eddie and the Cruisers)seem to be getting longer? In general, it was a weird intro for himtonight. Perhaps he improvised a tad, I couldn’t see the TelePrompTerto know for sure. Nevertheless, the Top 10 rollout was smooth from hereon out, except for the brief moment when Jason and Syesha walked to thewrong side of the stage and had to sprint back to the couches. Ofcourse, the couch is where you want to be for most of this show.

No time to waste tonight, and the contestants get ready for theirgroup number. Syesha, Brooke and Chikezie stretch their necks and arms,Jason jumps in place, and Michael Johns puts his best foot forward forwhat promises to be some awkward dance moves. The Top 10 pull off abright, bouncy version of “Right Back Where We Started From,” but Icouldn’t help wondering why only the girls had solos?

During the commercial break, most of the contestants undergo minortouch-ups. Brooke’s hair gets lots of fussing, though, as does Syesha,who covers her eyes to avoid a cloud of hairspray. Jason, meanwhile, istinkering with what looks like a necklace and seems, for the firsttime, a little nervous. But even as the elimination process begins inearnest, there are still “I love you, Chikezie” screams emanating fromthe floor. Sadly, they won’t help him tonight. And so Chikezie,clasping his hands in prayer, begins the long walk, not to the couch,but to the naughty stool. Brooke White, on the other hand, has herfists in the air, a symbol of victory and a sigh of relief. On toCarly, who’s also safe, and refuses to downplay her excitement. Sheliterally jumps on top of Brooke when she makes it to the velvet bluesofa.

During the commercial break, Corey is back to entertain, giving away free iTunes download cards and the new Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soulbook. But not before teasing Gina and Constantine about theircontributions (scary fact: Gina knew the exact page number on which herstory appears without even looking). Extra host (and Simon’sgal) Terri Seymour trades air kisses with Nigel Lythgoe, while Brookeand Carly laugh hysterically, as if in their own private little Idol world. Chikezie, meanwhile, is looking more and more bummed out.

Now it’s David Archuleta’s turn in the spotlight and he is… safe.Upon taking his seat, he breathes a visible sigh of relief. Not asecond later, David Cook is swaggering towards center stage. Duh, he’snot going anywhere either — high fives and hugs all around. Syesha, onthe other hand, is sent to the other side, and the audience lets out agasp of disbelief and a round of boos. Still, the cheers return forMichael Johns, who casually strolls over to his fellow contestants andgives David Cook a big bro hug.

It’s break time again, and Corey discovers an adorable six-year-old in the audience, whom he invites up to the Idolstage. Carly almost instinctively reaches over to pick him up (goodthing she shot down the pregnancy rumor, or this act certainly wouldhave fueled it) and you can hear a collective “awww” take over theroom. He was a cutie.

The lights go down again for Kimberley Locke’s package and pre-tapedperformance, and the Idols settle back and try to relax. All exceptDavid Archuleta, who holds his head down with purpose. He may be hereanother week, but it’s been a rough 24 hours, it appears. During theperformance, Syesha runs over to the couch for a quick powwow withCarly. Not long after, Chikezie follows suit. Man, those stools reallymust suck. The Idols chuckle when they see Simon’s season 2 ‘fro, andeven the bottom two seem to unwind a little. But the breather is cutshort when Nigel walks on stage and orders them back to the other side.In a nice way, of course.

It’s getting close to the end and David Cook has a headache, soduring the commercial break, an assistant quickly grabs some aspirinand a cup of water for him. And with the judges in their seats, we’reback to more to eliminations. Ramiele is… safe? No one in my nearvicinity seemed surprised, but I certainly did, mainly because I thinkwhenever you sing first, it’s a slight disadvantage if you’re prettyaverage. And let’s face it, the most memorable performance of Tuesdaynight was the last one, which I’d be willing to bet got the highestamount of votes.

Still, Ramiele is psyched. You can tell because she’s swinging herfeet, which don’t reach the floor. Kristy Lee Cook is equally excited,perhaps feeling some redemption in her song choice. As for JasonCastro? It’s the shocker of the night, though maybe not for him sincehe fessed up to a weak performance, but there he was in the bottomthree… for exactly five seconds.

Jason’s arrival on the couch was more of collapse — right on top ofKLC, who didn’t seem to mind. After a quick pep talk by Nigel, theremaining eight brace themselves for the night’s big moment. Jason, nowcalmed and facing reality, looks pensive and, dare I say, humbled,while Syesha and Chikezie seem stressed. Begrudgingly, they make theirway to center stage for the final showdown, from which Syesha emergesthe victor.

Paula, who’s always had a thing for Chikezie, like Elliott Yaminbefore him, gestures in awe as his video montage rolls, while Brooke,David Cook, and Carly all stand up in tribute. They’re soon joined bythe entire studio as he sings his encore, takes his final bow, andhears that familiar cackle of Chikezie girls one last time. Will he bemissed? Did America get it right? What say you, Idol fans?