I almost didn’t make it, PopWatchers. A conspiracy of last-minute magazine work, Los Angeles traffic, and what seemed to me to be a hazardous number of flat-bed trucks hauling barely tied-down kitchen appliances nearly kept me from making it to my seat at CBS Television City. My rear had barely touched the chair, in fact, before Corey the Warm-Up Comic launched into his tried-and-true warm-up routine, replete with Beyoncé-booty-shaking audience members. Since Corey was denied this opportunity the last two times I watched the live show, I surprised myself by actually sorta kinda maybe enjoying it. For nostalgia’s sake, I mean.

The rest of the show, though, I just plain enjoyed. The evening built on a nice and steady progression of Dolly-sweetened goodness until the glorious, glorious crescendo that was Michael Johns (pictured). But I’m getting ahead of myself. First up, a tally of the best signs: “Archuleta is mo betta” and… that’s it. The signage has been a massive disappointment this season thus far. The celeb quotient was also lacking: Vanna White, Michael Kors, Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race, and… wait for it… Ashley “Crying Girl” Ferl. Yes, for reals. She was parked way on the left side towards the back — it would appear that Nigel Lythgoe and Co. aren’t too keen on feeding off her copious sobs this season — and I only noticed her halfway into the show when Debbie the Stage Manager suddenly cried out during an ad break, “Ashley?! Is that you?! Are you crying?!” Yes, yes she was. She was losing her s—, quite frankly, to the point where I’m beginning to worry that Idol may just not be the best environment for the poor girl’s psyche, let alone her overtaxed tear ducts.

After the jump, we’ll dive into the rest of the show, which includes an extra-special bonus surprise — and no, I don’t mean of the April Fools’ kind. I think Ryan’s “hilarious” “fake out” was plenty April fooling for one year, don’t you?

Ryan’s fake out actually started with Debbie, who, with 30 seconds toair, kept saying into her headset-mic, “We have a problem, we have aproblem,” with just enough urgency to make us all believe it. At first,I thought it meant that Paula wasn’t going to make it to her seat intime, and she barely did, with about five seconds to spare. Then Ryanmade his “joke” about the preemption of the show, and it was all Icould do not to break out into a Nelson Muntz “Ha ha!” — directed atRyan for actually having to attempt the “prank.”

There were only gasps of surprise and admiration in the audience,though, after we all learned that Dolly Parton had written over 1,000songs. My colleague Nicholas Fonseca recently shared with me the insightthat there may not be another person in pop-culture who can make morepeople unabashedly happy than Dolly can, and I’d have to agree. Infact, I’m thinking my dad should use her music in his psychiatric practice asan antidepressant. If any of the Idols can even think of taking upthat mantle, I’d argue it’s Brooke “Sunshine” White, but it was hardnot to notice how the mosh pit was all gladly clapping along to her”Jolene” while we schmoes seated in the back apparently couldn’t bebothered. It seems Ms. White’s radiance only carries so far; perhapssmaller venues are the way to go for her. (Simon’s comments about her”weird” violinist, meanwhile, certainly cracked up the man’s fellowmusicians up in the Idol thunderdome’s band veranda.)

Then came my second favorite off-camera moment of the whole night: Corey told the audience not to clap during the slower songs, because, well, it would be weird. Could recruiting Simon to lead the campaign to Stop the IdolClapping and Waving actually be paying off? Well, no — the audiencemay have kept their clapping more-or-less in check, but they stillinsisted on limply see-sawing their arms through practically everyfrakking song. And during David Cook’s performance, Nigel was leading them— or at least standing at the back of the pit, stage right, waving hisarms in step with the song in a futile attempt at corralling the utterlyhopeless lack of rhythm.

But that, dear PopWatchers, was not the most obnoxious producer snafuof the show. Not even close. Now, while my opinion of Ramielemay not come close to Slezak’s feelings of rage towards her, I’ve never beenmuch of a fan. But that didn’t stop myrage at how blatantly the producers stacked the deck to get her intothe bottom three. First, if you noticed, she got no lighting-packagelove. And after I caught Nigel doing a silly hoe-down move as she sang(out of fun or mockery, I couldn’t tell), I realized he directed ittowards Carly Smithson and Jason Castro, standing in the wings. Huh.Not so normal to see contestants out on the floor during another’sperformance. Nor is it to see a stagehand walk said contestants out into the audienceduring said performance to position them right behind the judges forthe ad break shot. They both looked all kinds of uncomfortable as theyupstaged Ramiele, and indeed I can think of no reason to do this otherthan guaranteeing that a good half of the eyes in the room weren’twatching the woman on stage, thereby undercutting that ephemeral andever-important “connection with the audience.” And it worked; I can’teven remember what Ramiele was wearing, let alone singing.

David Archuleta certainly had no problem connecting with the UCLA AlphaPhi co-eds standing in the mosh pit. My notebook for the moment hefirst stepped on stage reads, “Girls go CRAZYfor Archie,” and the rest of the audience was equally insane for himafter he wrapped up yet another adorable and deeply felt song.(Comparatively, my notes for Kristy Lee Cook’s time on stage read asfollows: “KLC.” That is all.) Other than D’Archie, the only other Idolswho won spontaneous standing ovations — you know, the kind whereyou’re lifted to your feet by an awesome act rather than pulled ontothem out of some kind of “I’m on a TV show” obligation — were Carlyafter that beautiful final high note and Michael Johns after he raisedthe sexual temperature in Studio 36 about 20 degrees. And, okay, maybe Syesha “Watch How I Can Hold a Note For Ten Seconds” Mercado too, but she also didn’t get any arm-waving, so how jazzed could people have been, really?

Michael Johns’ “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right” technically got twostanding Os: One after his actual performance, when he had me screaming(in my head) that I would happily be all wrong with him right there inthe studio (what? too much?), and then once more after the wrap-up clipof performances, which tickled the audience so much that theyspontaneously leapt to their feet again. Yeah, yeah, I know you thinkthis was just because it was the end of the show, but, seriously, itwas all MJ.

I could have left the premises a happy camper right then, but once theshow wrapped, Corey told us to remain seated. “We got treats,” hechirped. Uh-huh. Right. You’ve already passed out your supply of Idol-branded iTunes Music Store gift cards and Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul.What other surprises could you possibly have for us? Oh, Jordin Sparksand Chris Brown pre-taping a take on their hit “No Air”? By theear-splitting shrieks of the UCLA co-eds, it appears that will indeedbe satisfactory.

But the band’s equipment had to be set up first, which gaveus some time to kill. I was initially horrified that we’d have to relyon solely on Corey’s wit for distraction — a random example from anearlier ad break that really needs no context: “Yep, she’s a woman:Going after the money.” But then the Idols trotted out and sat in theaudience, stage center, giving everyone plenty to gawk at: Ramiele,Castro, KLC, MJ and Carly in one row and D’Archie, Brooke and Syeshaanother, with each row flanked by a drab-Hawaiian-shirt-wearingbodyguard in the seat next to the rest of the rabble, I mean, theaudience. Wait. One, two… five… eight… someone’s missing. Where’sDavid Cook? He’s gotta be somewhere, right? No? Huh. That’s certainlycurious. [Editor’s note: A recent story on says that David Cook was hospitalized after the live show when he felt heart palpitations, thus missing the “No Air” taping. He was released soon after and, says a source, seems to be “doing fine.”]

Jordin and Chris took to the stage 20 minutes into the set-up and sangfull-throated through the entire sound check. “It’s great to be backhere,” Jordin chirped. She seemed to mean it, but I have to tell you, Iheard Jordin sing countless times on that stage last year, and I don’tknow if I’ve ever heard her better than last night. “I’m not used tothis,” she continues, pointing to the mosh pit, crinkling her nose.(Neither are we, Jordin, neither are we.) “How did everybody do? Was ita good show? I’m sorry I missed it!” At this point, after several otherreporters in my row had stood to watch the crowd interact with theIdols — D’Archie was an exceptionally popular autograph target — oneof the security guards got testy and asked USA Today‘sBill Keveney if he had a press credential, and then demanded his name.Why he picked on Bill, one of the most mild-mannered looking menimaginable, I have no idea, but just as suddenly the guy gave up andwent back to hovering over Brooke and D’Archie. Maybe Jordin asking hergrandfather to stand at that exact same moment diffused the situation?

The judges came back into the studio — except Paula, who got astand-in from the audience. Simon taught her how to do the stiff-armedPaula clap, which was my third favorite off-camera moment of the night.(Alas, Paula swooped in at the last minute — in a new dress, naturally– so the stand-in had to make do with an iTunes gift card.) My firstfavorite? When Debbie told the audience, right before Jordin and Chrisperformed for real, “Audience, don’t clap along, because you don’t haverhythm.” Ohhhhh, snap! “I mean that in a nice way.” Uh huh. “It’s late.”

It was late for me too, PopWatchers. After Chris and Jordin did theirfirst take of “No Air” — Jordin singing with her head down half thetime, in an apparent effort to dramatize the romantic angst of nothaving any air — I had to skedat to another work obligation, so Imissed the second (and, I would hope, final) take. Ryan mentioned “theresults” during the pre-tape, but since Dolly’s the one performingtomorrow — woo hoo! — I’m guessing this probably means “No Air” willbe featured during Idol Gives Back next week.

And now it’s time to give the floor back to you. Was MJ wasas scrumtrillescent on TV as he was in person? And do youthink it was bad form for Nigel to have Carly and Castro paraded infront of Ramiele while she was performing?