Natasha Bedingfield
Credit: Ray Mickshaw

After spending the better part of the previous 24 hours riding point on Paulagate 2008, of course literally the first thing I heard upon entering the American Idol studio was someone screaming “I love you, Paula!” This daffy woman continues to dominate my job, but I refuse to let her: Since I know Slezak’s all over this topic in his TV Watch, all I’ll say further on it (for today, anyway) is that I’ve read a lot about this online, and just for the record, the rumors about Slezak? They’re not true. He’s part of our family, and we wuv him. That is all.

Both the Neil Diamond and Natasha Bedingfield segments were pre-taped last night, in that order, which was the reverse order of how it aired on your TV, so this rundown’s going to be a bit screwy with the chronology. Actually, I thought I was arriving with plenty of time to make the pre-tape, but it turned out to be with just minutes to spare; the judges were already in their seats, Neil Diamond’s band was set and ready to play, and the Idols were sitting patiently on the results show bench. Except for Castro, that is, until Debbie the stage manager scolded him to get to his seat and he quickly hopped to. Then Neil Diamond — or, as my dad calls him, “the hippest Orthodox Jew you will ever meet” — emerged on stage, told the (unusually older-skewing) audience “I need you with me,” and, after the eco-friendly Ford commercial played on the Idol jumbo-crescent, snoozed grooved the audience to his new song, “Pretty Amazing Grace.”

When he was done, David Cook was the first Idol on his feet. The Saving Silverman star then came over and shook all five Idols’ hands, and the studioies began breaking down the set, which was quite the production: They had to lift the platforms that held Neil’s band up and off the Idol stage and then wheel them out of the studio via the massive soundstage door, which meant the CBS Television City gum fascists pages had to herd the mosh pit clear to the stage right side of the studio. I indulged in a brief fantasy that involved the studioies yelling, “Stage dive!” as they tossed the massive platforms onto the mosh pit just as they began practicing their arm waving, but then I caught Paula and Simon spending time with an adorable young girl from the audience who was clearly a cancer patient, and the snark demon suddenly evaporated right off my shoulder. Then I spied a sign reading “Archuleta Never Breaks a Sweat-ah,” and the little scamp re-congealed again in a snap, though this time he was noticeably smaller and well-groomed.

So stage dive over the jump with me, PopWatchers, and we’ll politely snarkify ourselves through this evening of young love and sunshin-y tears.

addCredit(“Natasha Bedingfield: Ray Mickshaw”)

As the studioies cleared out Neil’s set-up and cleared in NatashaBedingfield’s, a calm descended over the audience that I’d heretoforenever experienced within the confines of Studio 36. What’s this? Nowarm-up comic at all? Just the occasionally comforting words fromDebbie the stage manager to announce that “Ace Young is in the house”?But how will I reward my snark demon, then, for finally combing itshorns? Oh, wait, there’s Constantine Maroulis, phew; just the sight ofthe guy is enough to sustain my demon-y buddy for a full week. Also inthe house: Kristy Lee Cook, and a guy who looked a lot like Ray Romano.

And there was Papa Archuleta, standing in the wings talking with aguy in the audience two rows in front of me through the entire pre-showperiod. With all the stage dad whispering around this guy, I hesitatedeven bringing him up here ’cause I’d just as soon not create any moregrief for little D’Archie — who is like a ¾-scale exact replica ofmy neighbor Eric, right down to the unabashed glee at the mere sight ofNatasha Bedingfield (pictured).

The blonde Brit actually sang about her “Pocketful of Sunshine”two-and-a-quarter times last night. In her first take, she flubbed herlyrics before she’d even hit the chorus and had to start over. “It’s agood thing I’m not one of those guys,” she joked, pointing to the Idolcontestants. “Brooke White is not alone,” echoed Debbie, which wasfunny, but, jeez, will this woman ever be able to live her “You MustLove Me” reboot down? (The answer, of course, is no.) Natasha B.’ssecond take was great — or, to judge the look on D’Archie’s face,super-fantastically-oh-my-gosh!amazingeriffic. Or, to judge the look on Castro’s face…um… yawn. (The woman sitting next to me pointed that that Castro is always yawning, and once she did, I realized that every fourth time I looked at the guy, yep, yawn.It was uncanny.) After she’d finished, Ryan began bantering with herabout kissing each other on the mouth, until Debbie stepped up to themand Ryan said, “And here’s comes Debbie to tell me not to kiss anyone.”Fortunately for Whitney, Debbie actually was telling them they had toshoot Natasha’s song for a third time.

This time, Ryan introduced the singer without first pointing outthat D’Archie had a huge “professional” crush on her, she sang for asecond-and-a-quarter time, and Castro even managed to clap, though onlybarely, drag his hands across each other in such a way that it lookedlike Nigel’d tied fishing line to them and was making him clap like adreadlocked marionette. They went into the call in Q&A, and whenSimon suggested that Randy should be a cartoon bear in the next Paulavideo, my throat exploded with a guffaw that sounded like a carbackfire, which, when it played back later on the jumbo-half-circle, Irealized you could totally hear on TV. Rawk.

I was also laughing during the entire Simon’s first kiss atnine-years-old bit, but so was the rest of the audience; it was totallyadorable. (Even the snark demon, who I’ve just decided to callSmirkelstiltskin, was beaming.) Once it’d finished, we had 30minutes before airtime, so the Idols and judges left the stage. Or, Ishould say, the Idols and Simon and Paula left the stage, while Randyranted off the stage, saying, at full volume, “Nine! Nine! Nine! What?!Nine! Nine! Dudes!” It was the most cogent thing he’d said in weeks.

Just when I thought we were going to have a WUC-free evening, JohnnyD. showed up, made the exact same joke about how we were all the”hand-chosen pretty people” while all the uglies were sent to The Price Is Right, gotthe audience to do the wave (yes, me too, even with Smirkelstiltskindesperately holding down my arms), and then pulled yet another cadre ofmostly age-inappropriate kids to dance off to Britney’s “Oops!… I Did ItAgain.” There wasn’t a girl named Britney this time, but there was A) Aboy named Riker (looks like somebody’s parents liked themselves alittle ST:TNG) and B) A girl who was maybe eight who’dclearly seen far too many Britney dance routines, morphing from a shyyoung thing into a hip-thrusting, chest-shaking monstrosity that had mescreaming “NO! NO NO NO!” and the rest of the Idol audiencewhooping with cheers. If I contemplate this any further, you’re goingto have a 10,000-word rant on your hands about the sexualization ofchildhood, so I’d better just move on.

The live show itself finally started, with David Cook and D’Archieneck-and-neck in the mosh pit cheer contest during the group number. Atthe break, Debbie hugged Constantine, Randy worked the audience, andJohnny D. somehow made me nostalgic for Cory when he implored a kid tosing “God Bless America,” because “everybody knows that — exceptRoseanne.” (Um, even in 1990,that joke wouldn’t have worked.) We came back, Ryan comforted us aboutthe rumors, you know, those rumors, about the stuff, that concernedSlezak. They’re not true. Castro and D’Archie were safe, and we werequickly into another ad break in which Paula worked the audience,D’Archie and Castro shared an animated conversation, and I completelytuned out Johnny D.

The judges arrived in their seats seconds after the show had already started, and then it was Adam B. Vary’s turn to have his face go all super-fantastically-oh-my-gosh!amazingeriffic during the extended promo for So You Think You Can Dance.(Seems this season will involve a lot of jumping with a side oftwirling, huh?) Randy cup modeled, I remarked to the couple next to methat there seemed to be a lot of filler this evening, David Cook wassafe and the ladies were in the bottom two. And Castro yawned.

At this point, we entered the pre-taped segment, so it was hard tosee much of anything in the darkened studio. I did notice that DavidCook spent a good five minutes leaned over, hands clasped together, asthe other four Idols chatted over him as if the guy does this all thetime. But soon enough, he was sitting up and goofing off, recreatinghis dual high-five move from the Ford commercial on stage with Syesha.During the ad break after Neil Diamond, Johnny D. browbeat Castro intoblowing a girl a kiss for her birthday. Then, after we listened toNatasha B. sing for the third-and-a-quarter time, Syesha ignored twoCanadian women who told Johnny D. they’d won a trip to Idol onthe radio and were there only to support her. Not that I exactly blameSyesha; these Canadians were a bit… intense. But that still doesn’texcuse Johnny D. from reading from Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul with not even a whit of irony.

Remarkably, Brooke didn’t start with the tears until right beforethey came back from the final ad break and we were into the live showonce again. After Brooke got the bad news from Ryan, Debbie raced overto hug her as Ruben celebrated her home, and then Syesha tended to heruntil right before she had to sing. After the 19 Entertainment chimes,the other Idols rushed back to envelop Brooke in their arms, and DavidCook raised his arms to get the audience to cheer for her one lasttime, which I thought was pretty darn sweet. The sweetest moment of thenight, though, belonged to Simon Cowell, who wrapped Brooke in a bigole hug and then got her smiling and laughing once again.

Annnnnnd scene. So, PopWatchers, are you going to miss Brooke’sbrand of earnest sunshine? Do you think Randy should pursue a future incup modeling? And were you dying to get a look at Tara Miller, a.k.a.Simon’s first love? I sure know Smirkelstiltskin was.