By Whitney Pastorek
Updated May 08, 2008 at 06:30 PM EDT
Frank Micelotta

Given that Wednesday night’s results were pretty much a foregone conclusion, I wandered into the Idoldome with a renewed desire to drink in as much of the tangential sights and sounds of the show as possible. Because I skipped lunch, I also wandered in with a muffin. Riddle me this, PopWatchers: why is gum not okay, but a muffin totally cool? I have no clue, but I did enjoy having a snack for the two and a half hours we were locked inside CBS Television City. During my traditional kickoff confab with the L.A. Times’ Richard Rushfield, I noticed he was enjoying what looked like an Ice Blended, and I immediately regretted ditching my half-finished latte on the way in. Next week, I’m bringing a boxed lunch and a thermos of booze, just to see how much of a spread they’ll let through the metal detectors. My BlackBerry, meanwhile, remained in a box outside. Idea for YouTube video: A fast-motion look at American Idol‘s confiscated-cell-phone crate over the course of the show. I wonder how many times that thing nearly vibrates itself right off the table?

After the jump, all the celebs, Corey banter, commercial-break action, and further scientific observation of Ryan Seacrest, Man With No Rhythm. Plus, the reason I made a sign for the first time in my Idol life, the way said sign resulted in awesomeness, and perhaps the least-shocking reality show elimination in American history.

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I’d been given a seat located uncomfortably close to the stage today, so what a relief to walk in with my muffin and find Rushfield sitting in my usual second-to-last-row aisle spot. We quickly arranged a trade. It seems Richard finally finagled his way into the pit yesterday, and once you get a taste of the full-frontal, it’s hard to move back to the boonies. Meanwhile, your Aunt Whittlz is very happy hiding in the dark with little to no opportunity for appearing on camera, because there’s a decent chance I’ll be 1) scribbling in my notebook 2) making some sort of unpleasant face or gesture or 3) turning around to make snarky comments to the nearest fellow reporter at any given time, none of which is likely to enchant the viewing public.

But my ticket swap wasn’t the only audience chaos before the pre-tape today: I guess the memo didn’t get out that Maroon 5’s performance (and the “Spotlight on Simon” call-in segment) would get underway an hour and a half early, and so empty chairs littered the studio. Having run out of seat fillers, a page asked everyone in my distant section if we’d like to move up front. The tweens sitting in front of me trotted right over, but the rest of us grownups stayed put, causing a more official-looking gentleman wearing a headset to ask us again. He even put his hand on my shoulder, causing me to feel slightly bad for not being a team player, but if I’d gotten closer, someone would have seen my muffin and taken it away, I just know it.

The biggest reason I’m glad I stayed put: Antonia, the reporter from Us Weekly, soon plopped down in the chair ahead of me, whirling around to give me a look. “What’s your name?” she asked, in her lovely British accent. “Whitney…” “YOU’RE Whitney!” she said. “Debbie came up here looking for you yesterday. She said you crack her up.” Well, my goodness, PopWatchers. As you can imagine, this news just about blew my mind. But I was torn! Do I play it cool, take the compliment with my usual grain of salt (remembering, as always, that if I want to believe the good stuff, I have to believe the bad stuff), and go about my business? Or… do I try to get Debbie’s attention? Um, HELL YES I DO. I immediately take my pen and scribble a giant “DEBBIE” on my notepad, and then hold it up until she sees it, and once she sees it, I start waving like a loony, and Antonia points and I guess mouths That’s Whitney, because Debbie actually does a little yelp of an “Oh!” and then comes bounding up the aisle to say hello. Debbie, honest to God, that was the coolest thing that’s happened to me in a long time. Rushfield is now jealous almost to the point of resentment, but I’m okay with that. Thanks for reading!

While I was busy basking in the glow of my adoring celebrity fanbase, Corey had arrived to start his weekly game of “How Many States Can I Name,” and before I knew it, he was bringing out the contestants. Then my new best friend Debbie spotted a celebrity in the crowd, thank goodness, because I hadn’t seen a single one: “We have no judges right now,” Debbie said into her headset mic, “but we do have a judge in the audience… Judge Judy!” The crowd burst into applause — side note: I love that my colleague Ari Karpel and Judge Judy are on the same annual Idol attendance schedule — and Corey suggested we just let her officiate the show tonight. Hey, if she’s capable of utilizing more than the same three adjectives over and over again when she talks, I’d be all for it, dawg. But no time to ponder the possibilities. “Smack Ryan upside the head with a whole lot of noise!” Corey asked, and Seacrest strode in. Randy was next, pulling a brief Von Trapp before emerging and making a beeline for the second celebrity of the night, Mr. Howie Mandel. I couldn’t tell who it was for a second, and then I saw him fist-bump Mr. Jackson. That fist-bump is Mandel’s germophobic calling card, though I’m pretty sure Paula leaned in and gave him a hug as she entered, which probably drove the poor guy nuts for the next two hours.

Simon was the last to enter, after which a woman in a white sundress appeared on the judging platform. A murmur went through the crowd: Could that be Tara, his first kiss girl who called in last week? She does live in Petaluma, after all — perhaps they’ve planned a reunion? Seems we weren’t the only ones with our minds in the gossip gutter. “Simon, that wasn’t Tara, was it?” Debbie asked, after the woman had returned to her seat. Simon made some sort of gesture. “It is????” Debbie gasped. Simon started turning beet red right about now, and nodded. “My first kiss,” he said. Then Paula groaned, “IT’S NOT TRUE.” So now I have absolutely no idea who the hell that chick was, and I am somewhat disgusted with myself for caring so much. First I’m downloading Idol iTunes, then I’m frantically craning my neck to get a better look at someone who may or may not have played doctor with Simon Cowell behind some British hedgerow four decades ago — what’s next? I start involuntarily swaying my arms every time I hear a ballad? Ugh, I need help.

Luckily, this week’s call-in segment began, and the group’s answers to the “what’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome” question snapped me back to snarky attention. (Oh, like you’ve ever had stage fright a day in your life, Syesha. Please.) As someone on the phone was drooling over the possibility of Simon as James Bond — look, lady, he’s no George Lazenby — Maroon 5 emerged from the wings and readied themselves to play a Rihanna-free “If I Never See Your Face Again.” During the song, Debbie danced merrily, Nigel clapped along with his big club of a cast, and I started irrationally missing Blake Lewis. Then they wrapped up the segment with some wonderfully wry commentary from Adam Levine, Ryan gave him a big bro-hug, and the band started to walk off the stage. Then came the eight words we all dread: “Maroon 5 hold on, hold on Maroon 5,” barked Debbie. “I may not like what I’m hearing.” Insert uncomfortable pause, as the stage manager leaned into her headset. “We’re good!” she eventually exclaimed. Hooray! As the contestants walked off stage, a man to my right yelled, “David Cook, the next American Idol!” and got a large cheer from the crowd. David sort of nodded his head bashfully, and Archie gave us a big wave. Not all the cheers are for you, Archie. Jeez.

Time to kill time before the broadcast. Corey starts looking for someone named Ganner, Debbie gets the “mosh pit” to shove all the way over to their left so the crew can strike Maroon 5’s equipment out the front way, and the band starts doing something new: they are now using the breaks to perform little jazz/funk jams. The strange, avant-garde percussion thing they were fooling with first was the only thing that saved your claustrophobic Aunt Whittlz from self-immolating when a massive logjam of humanity appeared in front of me and clogged the aisle for what felt like forever. I found myself captivated by the handwritten t-shirt dangling mere inches from my face: “I want to be serenaded by David Cook,” it read. I looked up. It was being worn by a boy. Okay. Looking back to the stage, I saw Rickey Minor dancing with Debbie — Rickey was very frisky tonight — before another stagehand cut in. Somewhere, Corey had stopped looking for “Ganner,” and was now looking for “Paige.” Howie Mandel comes walking back through the crowd, and some man rushes to greet him; he is stopped short by the fist. I love the fist! I’m gonna start doing that, just so I don’t have to hug acquaintances.

I spy Idol Superfan Joely Fisher just as Corey decides to get things organized. He first invites a bunch of kids on stage to do the “Cha-Cha Slide,”a crowd participation activity I’ve not seen him try before. As far as I can tell, the song is some sort of urban square dance; the only part I’d ever heard before was that “Every-body clap your hands! clapclapclapclapclapclapclap” bit, because they play it at Shea Stadium sometimes, and I really only get out during baseball season. The dance party being somewhat lackluster, Corey quickly shifts gears into another round of Don’t Forget the Lyrics, this week featuring a girl who didn’t know any of the words to “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and a small boy named Seamus who, when Corey pushed pause on the recording of “SexyBack” he was (hilariously!) playing, looked up at the warm-up comedian and said, “I don’t know this song.” I gave Seamus a big round of applause for that. Then I embarrassed myself by loudly rapping every word to the first verse of “Ice Ice Baby” and loudly whooping with glee when Carly Smithson walked in with her new BFF Kimberly Caldwell, so thank God it was time for the show to start, because I think I might have been losing it just a smidge. Debbie shushed us all for the opening “Zen moment,” but Corey kept rambling. “Corey, you too!” she said. “I’m always in trouble,” he whined. And THIS… was American Idol.

As Carly and Kimberly giggled and whispered to one another, we worked through through the show’s opening with very little excitement save for watching Jason Castro yuk his way through “Reelin’ in the Years” like a cool kid who’d signed up for show choir on a dare. During the guitar solo, the contestants really had to sprint to make it to their marks up top; when they finished, Jason gave Debbie what looked like an apology and she sort of petted him a little. Meanwhile, the band broke into a jazz version of Steely Dan to carry us through commercial, and something about that sophisticated backdrop made Corey’s conversation with an eight-year-old seem almost classy. Then it was time to return. “9! 8! 7! 6! Will the judges make it?” Debbie counted down. “3! 2! Simon wins!” she said, just as the Idol noise burst us back to live TV. During this segment, David Archuleta miraculously survived being eliminated.

Next commercial break, Corey is trying to dispose of a copy of Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul — or as some kid in the audience calls it, “Cooking For Your Soul” — and Nigel is over brandishing his cast at Carly and K.Caldwell. Debbie is on the benches chatting with Archie, who is no doubt expressing his adorable disbelief at squeaking through while retaining even more adorable jugfuls of humility in response to the moshers incessantly screaming his name. Paula walks over to flirt a bit with Nigel, and with 30 seconds to spare, the rest of the judges take their seats. We are then treated to a video that compares the Idol Final Four to the Beatles. I try to decide if this montage is possibly more offensive than Syesha appropriating the Civil Rights movement to sum up her Idol journey, but before I can come up with an answer, I’m on my feet clapping for David Cook’s passage into the next round. Once Cook is on the couches, the girls of the “mosh pit” are beside themselves, one of them grabbing the next commercial to propose to the elder David and receiving a hug instead. “Makin’ dreams come true, Cookie,” said Corey. “Makin’ dreams come true.” Poor Corey. No one ever proposes to him. They just bleed him dry for his iTunes gift cards, and then go back to throwing themselves at the precocious children. I hope Corey’s not a drinker.

Magic nearly happened right about here, PopWatchers, as Debbie suddenly summoned Carly to the stage. Ms. Smithson timidly walked forward, clearly nervous about what on earth those people wanted from her now — having already taken her heart and soul and crushed them upon the rocks of disappointment — but Debbie convinced her to come all the way up and sit on the couches, taking her (rightful) spot between Syesha and Cook. Nigel must have made eyes at this gesture, since Debbie walked over and explained, “David goes, ‘Let’s confuse America — when we come back, Carly’ll just be sitting here.'” As the Ford commercial and pre-taped segment begin blaring completely without warning, Rickey Minor goes and takes Carly’s old seat next to Kim Caldwell, and Joely Fisher’s toddler begins playing in the aisles. “That was deja vu,” Debbie said as the pre-tape came to an end. “Hey Corey. Do you think anyone would be confused if we came back from commercial and Carly was sitting on the couch?” Corey decided to pose the question to us. “Should we leave Carly on the couch?” he asked. “YES!!!” I screamed, with all the passion my little lungs could muster, but it was no use. After some chatter about Carly taking Rickey Minor’s post on the bandstand, Debbie gives us the bad news that Carly’s being booted back to gen pop after all. “I tried,” Debbie says, regretfully. I’d like to know just who went over our heads on that.

Is this getting really long? Well, people, trust me — it felt long in there, too. Bo Bice (pictured) sang, I found it unbelievable that he has still not been introduced to the magic of Frizz-Ease, and then I got caught up in watching Ryan do his awkward knee/leg-shake thing again. He’s like one of those sunglass-wearing dancing flowers that were so popular back in the day: Ryan senses that music is playing and moves accordingly, but there’s no discernible pattern or connection between the music and the movement. He just sort of jerks around. It’s absolutely precious. Also, as someone near me pointed out, this lack of rhythm is possibly the best proof we have that Seacrest is not in the least bit gay.

Bo ends his song with proper I-am-a-golden-god panache, greets the contestants on his way out the door, Corey gives a Guitar Hero to some kid with a diamond ring in his ear about the size of a doorknob, and the kid has the two Davids sign the box. Syesha and Jason, over in the elimination spot, are not asked to participate in this. Awkward. I hear Syesha say something like, “…every time except for two,” and wonder if that’s how many times ol’ Sylent-but-Deadly’s been in danger of going home. (Can someone run the numbers on that, please?) Debbie finally spots Howie Mandel and does what any sane person would: “Howie!” she yells. “Hi! What do you think? Deal? Or no deal?” Howie answers in the positive. “Cool!” says Debbie.

Before elimination, Ryan asked Jason something to the effect of “Why do you think you were such a train wreck yesterday?” and the nice middle-aged woman to my right leaned over and whispered, “I think it’s the weed he’s been smoking.” I AM AWARE, CASTRO FANS, THAT HE IS “NOT A STONER.” But if middle-aged ladies are leaning over, unprovoked, and making pot cracks, I cannot possibly be blamed. And anyway, it hardly matters anymore — after Syesha managed to somehow bring the current Democratic primary debacle into her all-encompassing personal ego trip Idol experience, Mr. Castro was sent home. I can’t lie and say I’m sad to see him leave, but I hearken back to a hyperactively positive e-mail I sent my co-workers yea so many months ago, when the strange boy with dreads took the semifinal stage and sang “Daydream,” accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. I was in awe of what I’d just witnessed — the sheer implausibility of the image, as well as the performance itself — and so excited about Idol‘s new artist-friendly direction that I wanted to talk about it to anyone who would listen.

Considering Castro’s flame-out, though — and that of the equally quirky-but-talented Brooke White — I’m not sure taking on contestants with so much character was ultimately a good idea. And as I watched Jason blow off his final performance of “I Shot the Tambourine Man,” I decided this show’s just not built for daydreamers. To survive the Idol machine, you either need almost bulletproof talent (D.Cook), or the kind of ambition-fueled tunnel vision that omits any sense of self from the equation (Archie, Syesha). Jason, sadly, fell somewhere in the middle. As soon as the cameras switched off, the kid forgot his lyrics again, and looked at Debbie with a face full of willful glee. She gestured for him to keep playing as the top three came off their perch to surround him, but his momentum was gone. Grinning wide, he tossed his hair one last time and stopped for good. Everyone sort of tepidly applauded, the judges came to give some final hugs, and I headed out the door to get my BlackBerry back.

And that, campers, is all she wrote, which I should think is more than enough for one night. So what did you think? Did America make the right choice? Did Jason — as some in my camp suggest — take a total dive? And what are the chances that the Sylent-but-Deadly One can derail the David train? I’ll be back next week to take you into your final two; weirdly, I’m looking forward to it. Gracious. At this rate, I’m not sure anything short of a serious heroin addiction is gonna get me my street cred back.

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