The mood in the Idol studio going into elimination night on Thursday? Somber. From the CBS Television City pages to the cameramen, Debbie the stage manager to, yes, even Corey the warm-up comic, everyone just looked wiped out. This being their fourth Idol commitment in just as many days, it seemed like much of the crew had by this point OD’d on contestants, charity and gospel choirs. There certainly wasn’t the same buzz in the air that I felt at the start of Tuesday’s show, but then again, this is the day we all dread, and I’m not talking about Jason Castro’s hair, either. (We’ll get to his female hair-alike later.) Idol may give back, but it also taketh away, and tonight, one person’s dream would be snatched from their clutches.

But as Carly (pictured, left, with Syesha) declared on Tuesday, the show must go on, and so it did. With 10 minutes to air, Corey turned on his internal power button and started the pluck-from-the-crowd-and-onto-the-stage shtick. Elderly man shaking his booty disturbingly well? Check. Teenager desperate to be cast on a reality show? Found. Soccer mom who can handle the Axl Rose snake dance? No problem. Debbie got some extra-special attention as well, thanks to her close encounter of the microphone kind with one Brad Pitt. “She was still signing autographs this morning,” Corey cracked.

With the crowd settling down, it was time for Corey’s instructions: Clap for the couch, boo for the chairs and, if you’re chewing gum, please dispose of it in one of plastic blue cups being walked around by the trusty Idol pages. Talk about a thankless job. And for the front? “Be ready, it gets emotional up here.” It doesn’t take long for Corey to notice the four-foot-long dreads on one of the mosh pit girls. “Gee, I don’t know who you’re voting for,” he said.

It’s time for the TelePrompTer check, where everyone who brought a sign holds it up to see if it’s in the way of Ryan’s sightline. Tonight’s selection is kind of lame, and not really worth going into, with the exception of one kid who donated his allowance to Idol Gives Back and is awarded with an iTunes card. With exactly four minutes and 20 seconds to go, Randy Jackson makes his entrance, and Corey is delighted. “You’re always on time!” he yells.

Still no sign of Simon or Paula, but the Idols are marched out onto the stage, with David Cook leading the pack, followed by Kristy Lee Cook, showing a surprising amount of skin, Jason Castro, sporting those white capezio-looking shoes again and making the peace sign symbol, Brooke White waving and paler than usual, Syesha giggling and Carly hanging on to Michael Johns. As usual, the deafening screams accompany David Archuleta’s name.

With the Idols all lined up, Simon and Paula make their way to the judges’ table and Debbie asks the studio to quiet down and use our “inside voices.” Cue the look of fear (and a yawn from JC) as Ryan makes his Idol intro. Since most of the audience members knew there would be no guest performers on tonight’s show (Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown was pre-taped a few weeks back), everyone was prepared for a whole lot of video packages, though I don’t think we expected one so soon. Still, it was nice to see Simon laugh at his own expense (with a little help from Jimmy Kimmel) and Debbie get her moment, thanks to the recurring mention of the night (and now of her life, I’m sure), Brad Pitt. While the video rolls, some 28 robed gospel singers descend on center-stage and we strap ourselves in for another “Shout to the Lord.” My take on this repeat performance? Really unnecessary. I don’t watch Idol for politics or religion. I don’t tune in so I can be provoked to think. And I don’t like to feel excluded. I want to be entertained.

Fortunately, outside of Kristy Lee Cook, whose walk into the audience was just plain robotic, the Idols hammed it up big time. David Cook put his worries behind him and belted the high notes with bravado, Carly looked confident and svelte, Syesha was smiley and radiant. Brooke, on the other hand, seemed very nervous, likely knowing she was up first in the elimination count-down.

After the group number, Randy, Simon and Paula took time to shake hands and offer their last good lucks. Brooke, predictably, is more of a hugger. As they exit the stage, the Idols are offered water and towels but not many take them. Meanwhile, I hone in on a baffling sign that reads “Danny Noriega: you’re still my Idol.” Huh?

It was time for yet another mention of Debbie’s brush with Brad, and a montage of a dozen or so celebs acting silly to the tune of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Can anyone say filler? Oh, and boobs. Lots and lots of them.

Finally, it’s time to dim the lights. Brooke heads out first with a forced smile and shaky hands, much like her banter, which includes one minor faux-pas. But we’ll cut her a break for being presumptuous since she was, indeed, safe. Breathing a huge sigh of relief as she hit the couch, I’ll bet she had another James Taylor tune playing in her head: “How Sweet It Is.”

Up next: David Cook. Standing by Ryan, he fidgeted with the bottom of his leather jacket for most of the judges’ recap, looking anything but “pompous.” Vulnerable was more like it. But the tension was broken soon enough by laughs in the audience and, of course, America’s votes. He was safe.

With clenched fists, David Archuleta takes a short walk to Seacrest central, slightly hunched over which makes him look even smaller. No surprises here, he’s directed to the couch.

By break time, Brooke has relaxed and is leaning back and blowing kisses. David Cook, in better spirits, heads over to the front row to shake hands, while little Archie stays put. Corey finds a crowd member who drove from Salt Lake City to LA just to see David Archuleta and Brooke. But Brooke is in mid-conversation with music director Ricky Minor and misses the entire exchange.

The show picks up again with Jordin Sparks’ and Chris Brown’s duet and the judges break out for a few minutes. In their absence, Ryan takes Simon’s seat and Debbie rests in Paula’s. David Archuleta bops his head in time with the song, while Brooke, now with her legs up on the couch, and David Cook whisper in each other’s ears.

The stools, meanwhile, are looking awfully lonely. Is Jason Castro headed their way? You wouldn’t think so watching him gallop into position. JC didn’t look to have a care in world. Did he know he was safe, or was he simply projecting positive thoughts? Either way, it was high-fives at the couch as Jason took his seat.

Enter Kristy Lee Cook, who’s fumbling with her shirt and perhaps regretting the decision to go skimpy. From her facial expression, I imagine KLC thought her destiny was the stool, and judging by her reaction, she was as shocked as the rest of us. Holding on to her cheeks in disbelief, KLC literally collapsed when she made it to the couch, then leaned back with hands to her stomach struggling to process what had just happened.

While KLC’s pulse returned to normal, we’re treated to a video package by the three presidential candidates. The only one to get an audible reaction? John McCain for his mildly amusing dig at Simon. At the same time, the bottom three was starting to register as Michael Johns, Carly and Syesha made their way to the stage to be greeted by their fellow finalists with a big group hug. One minute to air and the bottom three hang on to each other in solidarity. Still, I can’t help noticing that Michael Johns is sweating profusely.

Where’s the love? In the studio, there were plenty of screams for Carly and Michael Johns, leading many of us to think Syesha was headed home. I, for one, was pretty much convinced of it, which is what made the evening’s result perhaps the biggest shocker of the season thus far: Michael Johns had the least amount of votes.

But before I rant about this injustice, I have to complain about the build-up. Why bother mentioning that last year’s lowest scorer was given a charity-inspired second chance if you’re not planning to offer it again? What is the point of saying that, aside from pure cruelty? I found it insensitive, to be honest, and maybe even slightly offensive in how it defeated much of the good will built around the concept of Idol Gives Back. I can’t imagine what they were thinking.

Now I wasn’t expecting Michael Johns to win. Some would say he doesn’t deserve to just because he’s a native Australian and the show is called American Idol, after all. As history has shown, rockers don’t tend to advance much further anyway (with the exception of Chris Daughtry and Bo Bice), but was it really MJ’s time to go? Was “Dream On” such a disaster? I don’t think so. Besides, whether or not the guy was the best singer, he certainly was easy on the eyes, and that I will miss terribly. Still, no one was more torn up about the loss than Carly Smithson, who bawled uncontrollably for the show’s final minutes. It took a long embrace by David Cook, Kristy Lee’s shoulder to lean on and a sympathetic tap on the back by Ryan and Debbie to console her, and she still had a hard time getting it together for the cameras.

Michael Johns, on the other hand, took the news much better. His final bow was all about having a good time and relishing the spotlight for one last trip to the riser. Foregoing the high notes towards the end of “Dream On,” MJ had Randy clapping along, Paula on her feet and Simon looking genuinely disappointed in the night’s outcome.

It was the prevailing sentiment long after the last note was sung. Aside from many a bro-hug from compatriots like David Cook and Jason Castro, MJ got a nice send-off from Ricky Minor, well wishes from Paula and Randy, and a genuine how-did-this-happen shrug from Simon.

So why did this happen, PopWatchers? Does Archuleta simply have the male contestant vote cornered? Is Carly stealing some of the rock thunder? Was Michael Johns’ ouster justified? How did you react to the news?