American Idol is giving me some serious mixed messages, PopWatchers. On the one hand, I step away from CBS Television City for three weeks, and Michael Johns and Carly Smithson both get handed the semi-regular Jennifer Hudson No Prize, events that severely shake my enthusiasm for this year’s season and force a good friend to repudiate Idol altogether. On the other, while I was gone, Kristy Lee Cook also won the Sanjaya Malakar No Prize, which coaxed our beloved Idolatry producer Jason Averett into fits of coruscating genius unabated (and perhaps even enhanced) by the departure of the aforementioned (and dearly missed) Carly. On the one hand, when I returned to the Idol stage yesterday afternoon, the warm-up comic was not our be-loathed Cory, but a laid back old-school emcee named Johnny D. who I vaguely remember enjoying from last season. On the other, this was also the night that Paula very well may have singlehandedly lifted the entire American Idol juggernaut over an entire school of sharks purely on the power of whatever magic she’s sparkling to these days. I know Idol‘s trying to tell me something, but I’m not sure if it means it wants a booty call, to move in, or just be “friends” who sporadically play a game of online Scrabble.

I’ve already given the on-the-scene lowdown on the whole Paula two-song-no-sorry-one-song debacle — it was too juicy not to download to the blog ASAP — so all I have to add is this: I should’ve realized things were heading down the crazy-train track when Nigel Lythgoe scurried through the audience from his usual stage-left berth halfway through Syesha Mercado’s first performance for what appeared to be a last-minute pow-wow with Ryan and Debbie backstage, something I’d never seen him do. (And it’s not like there weren’t ways of getting cross stage that didn’t include whacking through the sea of swaying hands in the mosh pit.) Lo and behold, Ryan said on his radio show this morning that Nigel was indeed changing things mid-stream after a directive from a Fox exec (you can read more about that here).

As for the rest of the show, I could just boil it down to David Cook’s a total mensch and Johnny D. once played dead for Mulder and Scully, but that’s not what y’all come here for, is it? So let’s all raise ourselves over the jump on the power of Paula’s magic, and dive into this most bizarre of Idol evenings, how ’bouts it?

addCredit(“David Cook: F Micelotta/Getty Images”)

First things first: I must give a shout out to the lovely woman who coordinates the Idolseating for the audience each and every night. I was seated in thethird row alllll the way to the stage right edge of the audience, afantabulous spot to see the stage, but not so much the best to scopethe entire scene. (Example: Save the Glenn Close lookalike in thefront row, I saw exactly zero celebs, not even, apparently, Rita “Mrs.Tom Hanks” Wilson. Wah wah.) But just before Johnny D. started things pumping, the audience coordinator woman — whose name I will learn by tonight’s results show — cleared enough seats in my row that I was able to move closer to the aisle. And justin time to witness a dude who I guess knows Brooke White’s husband begand plead the woman now behind me to give up her Brooke White sign,which had a really impressive portrait of the Sunshine Bambi in coloredpencil. (This sign wasn’t even hers; it was brought in by someone inthe mosh pit, which is by-and-large a sign-free zone. Can’t have thosehands occupied with anything but swaying!) Even after the guy told herthe sign was for Brooke’s husband and then offered her money, she would not be deterred. That’s some serious fandom right there.

(My favorite signs of the night, meanwhile: bronze goes to “Brooke,Be My Nanny”; silver to “Jason Castro is my Guitar Hero”; and gold to”My husband has a man-crush on Seacrest.” Uh-oh, Whitney, you’ve gotcompetition.)

Johnny D. introduced himself to the audience by announcing that “I’mthe guy with the free stuff. The louder you are, the more free stuffthey give to me to give to you.” He then did a cursory dance-off toBritney’s “Oops!…I Did It Again,” which was won by a nine-ish girl named,yep, Britney. After a classy shout out to the audience coordinators,Johnny D. harshed my new WUC mellow with the following two statements.One: “We don’t let the ugly people in any more.… We sent them next doorto The Price is Right.” Two: “Do not clap along with the songs. We love the swaying.” Sigh. The relationship started off with such promise, too.

The Idols are brought out, then Ryan, then Simon and Randy (every oneof the Idols applauds their entrance except Castro, whose hands remainin his pockets as his eyes wander off to find Planet Paula). The lightsgo dark, and just as Ryan’s 15 seconds from starting us off, Debbieannounces that Paula’s arrived “but don’t applaud her.” After Ryan’snot-so-subtle scripted dig at Brooke’s “You Must Love Me” reboot, hegives her a soft low five as they walk off in different directions, asif to say “Hey, B, you know I just doin’ what I gotta do here, but Istill gots your back.” (Because Ryan, and Brooke, and I, are sostreet.) At the break, Cook, D’Archie, Brooke and Syesha walk off stageleft and Castro does a quick nervous jig as he saunters off the on-deckchair stage right. It was the last time I saw him with any kind ofenergy all night.

After Jason finished his first song — there’s a comment about beingforever in Jason’s blue jeans that I’m strenuously trying to avoid here— and we were at the ad break, Cook and Brooke shared a good luckshoulder squeeze, and then the rocker scooted across the stage tocongratulate Castro. He checked the mic-stand height, and then sat insilence next to Ryan on the interview stools as some Idolroadies (though, I guess, they’re technically studioies?) fiddled withthe guitar amp. Watching them sit there, I had two thoughts: One,Seacrest really needs to sit with better posture. And two, Cook’s hairwas looking very Christian-from-Project Runway-hot-tranny-mess-but-not-in-a-good-way.They execute the Cook-interviews-Seacrest gambit, give each other a “Iguess that went well?” shrug, and soon enough Paula’s up and dancing asCook sings about being alive. And when I said Cook was a mensch, I meantit; he stuck around after he was done specifically so he could giveBrooke a good luck high five.

I could’ve been entranced by the sunshine hair, or maybe it was justthe flawlessly uninterrupted opening, but I didn’t nearly find Brooke’s”I’m a Believer” to be as disastrous as Simon made it out to be. I’veseen some serious disasters up on that stage, and Brooke didn’t comeanywhere near it. She certainly didn’t think so, flashing her hubby inthe front row a thumbs-up that I swear somehow resembled anexclamation point. At the ad break, Syesha stopped to hug and wave toher fans, something, actually, that she’s always doing whenever shecan; I suspect she’s even giving the TV the one-handed clap-wave backin the green room. It was about this point that I realized Johnny D. wassharing an anecdote with the audience about the time he spent eighthours playing a dead body on The X-Files, a gig he had to audition for. “Hey, it bought me a car.” Ah, Hollywood.

When D’Archie came out before his first number, he was as relaxedand confident as I’d ever seen him; no nervous tic smiles whatsoever.And the judges were looser too; perhaps because they’d been silencedfor the first half of the show, they’d shockingly remained silentduring the performances too, but that broke down once D’Archie begancrooning to his sweet Caroline. (I’ve also got to give mad props — see!street! — to the tall blond dude in the mosh pit with the palegray-blue short-sleeve shirt, who never once clapped with his handsabove his head, let alone swayed them. History will look back kindly onyour brave service to the nation, young man, I promise you.)

Syesha Mercado apparated on stage — honestly, she was just suddenly there — and soon we were into Paulagate 2008. (Click herefor the full rundown.) And, oddly, even though the judges got tocomment in the second half of the show, it moved a lot more brisklythan the first half. (In fact, full disclosure, it all unfolded sosmoothly, with none of the crew or talent betraying a hint of anxiety,that I didn’t realize what Paula had done would be such a Big HugeHonken Deal until after I’d left the studio and found a bajillione-mails about it on my Blackberry. Okay, like seven, but still.)

Castro looked like he gave up during his performance; Cook put theaudience on their feet; Brooke looked over her lyrics on the interviewstools and chatted up Simon’s “nightmare” comments with Ryan beforedoing it over again on the air; D’Archie sang about coming to Americain a haze of red, white and blue lights, and then rubbed his right handnervously through the entire judges’ critique (as if he has cause toworry); Johnny D. nearly blew out my ear drums after telling my entiresection he’d give Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soulto whoever screamed the loudest; Syesha warmed up for her second numberwith a strangely wide-stance back-and-forth dance; and then Simon wasdeclaring the evening “kind of a bit chaotic.”

During the recap sequence, Castro mostly kept to himself — seriously, as much as I’d like to keep him around for the eye andear candy, I got the distinct impression he would not care too much ifhe was gone tomorrow — while the rest of the Idols cheered each other’ssegments on, with Cook issuing the most emphatic applause afterSyesha’s numbers came up one last time. (Methinks someone was unhappywith Simon’s prevision of tonight’s results.) Ryan said NatashaBedingfield would be in the house, D’Archie’s face lit up, and they allwaved us a good night. Afterward, Syesha worked the crowd as the otherIdols shuffled offstage, but not before Cook asked Debbie to page hismom: “Mom? Where’s David Cook’s mom?” Mama Cook waved to her son, hewaved back — see! mensch! — and I emerged into a world far, far moreshaky and uncertain than when I’d exited.

I turn the discussion over to you, PopWatchers. Do you think Paula’sgaffe will be addressed in tonight’s results show? Will any explanationquell your wildest conspiracy theories? And do you think Jason’s willto make the final four really was diminished, or became so afterhearing Paula say it?