Ah, to breathe the air of the Idol studio again. It’s been too long, my friends, and I’ve traveled far — all the way to England and back! So first, a big thanks to my colleagues Ari Karpel, Adam Vary and Aunt Whittlz for subbing in. They all do the recap proud, don’t they? That’s why they get paid the big bucks, people. As for me, even though I was an ocean away, American Idol is pretty much inescapable no matter where you are in the world, and certainly in the UK where I watched Brooke go down in a blaze of runny mascara (yes, Pop Idol may be dead, but the American version thrives on London cable). By the following week, when I made my way to New York City, I was sure Syesha would be next to go, but — surprise! — she’s still here. How did this happen?

I’m with the Castro conspiracy contingent who believes he purposely threw the race. Folded. Cashed in his chips. Unceremoniously waved buh-bye (and probably good riddance) to the competition. How else can you explain choosing “I Shot The Sheriff” instead of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which would’ve, could’ve, should’ve been the perfect fit?! Still, I do miss his cute dread-y face. Thank goodness, David Cook’s still around.

With that in mind, let’s move on to the final three. In the last few days, much of the media focus has been on David Archuleta and his dad’s banishment from Idol rehearsals. So not surprisingly, when Jeff Archuleta walked into the studio, all eyes were fixated on him and that bouncy plaid cap. It seems Father’s Day came early for this audience, since Papa Archie arrived a good 30 minutes before show-time, dutifully taking his seat behind the judges’ table. He didn’t sit still for long, though. It seems the Idol floor is also a networking opportunity for Mr. A, who chit-chatted with friends and nearby B-listers like Marilu Henner. Though there’s no doubt he kept his distance from Nigel Lythgoe, it wasn’t like he was confined at all. Just before Corey got his shtick going, Papa slipped out to the green room area undisturbed. That’s not to say that I wanted to see some drama (okay, maybe a little), but all in all, it was painfully uneventful.

With 15 minutes to go, I saw a smattering of recognizable faces file in. Gavin DeGraw was seated just in front of famed songwriter Diane Warren, Justin Guarini held down audience left, and City Slickers’ Daniel Stern landed a cheapo seat near me in the bleachers. Hollywood can be so cruel. Stage manager Debbie was ready to rock, sporting her best Bret Michaels bandana while showing Marilu and clan to their seats. Corey, meanwhile, was going on and on about the responsibilities of the pit. “Hands above your head the whole time,” (that’s what she said) he orders, and the girls dutifully oblige. If only it could be that effortless outside of the CBS Television City walls. Alas…

With less than four minutes to go, the red Coke cups make their entrance, only to be greeted by three empty chairs. The judges and Ryan are M.I.A. as usual. “Let’s bring out our kids,” Debbie announces instead, prompting the crowd to its feet. First impressions? Why does David A. look like he’s trying out for the Cars? And Syesha: could that slit go any higher, girl? With one minute and 10 seconds ’til airtime, Debbie’s getting testy. “I really need a host,” she huffs, just as Ryan makes his entrance. With 10 seconds to go, Simon and Randy rush in, but still no sign of Paula up even after the final count winds down. She slips in just as Ryan finishes his intro.

addCredit(“David Cook: Ray Mickshaw”)

It’s clear the pace will be swift tonight since Ryan doesn’t do his usual three-second pause in between “This” and “is American Idol,”and so David Cook and Syesha are ushered to the side of the stage indue haste — Cook (pictured), with a purposeful pivot that proves he’s basicallygoing through the motions at this point, and Syehsa struggling with herdress. Meanwhile Archuleta, taking his position center stage, isimmediately reduced to a parody of his aww shucks self. Smiling, waving, blushing, smiling, waving, blushing. It’s All. So. Predictable.

Fortunately for Archie, he pulls off Paula’s choice, “And So ItGoes,” which David Cook and Syesha watch intently from up above, outof the camera’s sight but with a clear view down. But by the time thejudges start talking, they’d moved along the bridge for the nextcommercial cutaway. Jeff Archuleta, meanwhile, shakes his head asCowell gives his candid critique, with which I couldn’t agree more.

Time for a break and for Paula to hug Gavin, Diane Warren and anyoneelse within arm’s reach. Soon after, Papa Archie heads over towards thepro corner for a proper introduction. He and Gavin seem to get along,maybe because they both share an undying devotion to their cappeauof choice. But on the stage, it’s back to business as Syesha preparesto belt Alicia. “If I Ain’t Got You” was an apt choice for which shegot high marks, but in the studio, it sounded like she didn’t quite hitsome of those punchy high notes and was overpowered by the backupsingers during the chorus. No matter, it was a good start and finishand she looked hot throughout — what more could you want?

It’s now time to get Cookin’, and this crowd was most certainlyhungering for it. David C. does some neck stretches off on the side ofthe stage while his judges’ choice package runs. As usual, Cowell,IMHO, is spot-on choosing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” one ofthe most gorgeous songs ever written, that’s strangely appropriate forCook’s vocal stylings. And he kills it, garnering what was sure to bethe most enthusiastic standing ovation of the night. Of course, David’smom was on her feet the whole time, which made the moment that muchsweeter. What David Cook exuded was humility andease, both of which go a long way in this popularity contest.

As Cook exits, he gives a final thumbs up to Cowell and the crowdwhile David Archuleta takes a seat on the stool with Debbie. Ryan makeshis way over and checks the chair’s sturdiness, then slinks it down lowfor an ice-breaker moment with Archie. It’s contestants’ choice thistime, but David A. looks confused during the introduction, unsure ofwhen to head over to the microphone. Or maybe it was nerves knowingChris Brown’s “With You,” while a logical pick that appeals to younger Idolviewers, would also require his hips to gyrate ever so slightly. Not toharsh on the kid too much, but this second performance was awkward fromstart to finish. Sure, Paula was pumped and dad was clapping along, butSimon looked decidedly uninterested. The whole thing felt forced, downto the hand slaps at song’s end.

Seeing Syesha on stage was a welcome relief, if only because herconfidence knows no boundaries. As for her little “Fever” stool number?I couldn’t help but conjure up the image of Sharon Stone’s famousleg-cross in Basic Instinct, but at the same time, seeing Marilu Henner reminded me of the classic Apprenticeconflict: whether to blatantly use female sexuality to advance in areality TV show or to simply compete. Syesha, it seems, went for theformer and it may have backfired. Even Paula strayed from her usual”you’re who you are” script for a moment of actual judgment. As forSimon? Right again.

Syesha slightly overstays her stage welcome, lingering behind forsome high fives, but David Cook, guitar in hand and rose affixed to itsneck, is ready to roll. His one-minute sound-check is relaxed, and Cookpractically skips his way over to the stool afterwards. But once there,he fidgets with his shirt, pulling down the waist area and sleeves, andstarts to look nervous. Perhaps Cook wasn’t so sure about his choice ofSwtichfoot’s “Dare You to Move.” Like many modern rock hits, the verseslack melodic range and don’t exactly play to his strengths. Sureenough, that chill disposition quickly disappears once the judges havetheir say.

Moving along, the s–t-eating grin makes a prompt return withArchuleta’s final bow, the producers’ choice of Dan Fogelberg’s”Longer.” I couldn’t have said it better than Simon — the producers, beit Nigel or whomever, simply date themselves by picking soft-rock hitsthat my parents barely remember. And if David A. gets crap for hisrendition, it’s as much their fault as it is his. But I actually thinkhe did the song justice, and carried it into the 21st century, whichwas no easy feat. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think his finale spot is guaranteed at this point?

Syesha’s on the other hand? Not so much. Sure, she commands thestage and knows how to ham it up with the pit crowd (even if thatinvolves a full calisthenic warm-up right then and there), but it’snothing we haven’t seen countless times on Idol nor is itnecessarily a winning strategy. Remember Diana DeGarmo? KatharineMcPhee? Runners up with a perfectly pleasant disposition butultimately, nothing special. The same can be said of this final,forgettable performance of “Hit Me Up” which was so loud and treblythat some of the youngsters in the audience were actually coveringtheir ears in pained discomfort. Ouch, indeed.

Once again, I couldn’t help but think, “Thank God for David Cook” assoon as he hit the stage and, like a true rock star, threw his roseinto a crowd of screeching fans. Shaking in place, he gestures over toRickey Minor, recapping the cue which they’d apparently discussedearlier. One deep breath and he launches into “I Don’t Want to Miss aThing” without, er, missing a thing. Still, the judges appear unsure ofwhat to think, so they scan the crowd only to find a room full of Cookconverts swaying hypnotically. If it’s reaction they’re looking for,they got it from a rousing cheer at the song’s end. The Archuletas,however, sat out the standing ovation.

And so the semifinals had come to an end. Nigel Lythgoe, clearlypleased with the outcome, enthusiastically shakes each contestant’s hand,after which the three group-hug like there’s no tomorrow. But ofcourse, eliminations are coming and who knows which way it’ll go. Willwe be saying Byesha tonight? Or are we facing another of Idol’s most shocking eliminations ever?It’s probably no surprise that I’m hoping for D-day at next week’sfinale, but where do you stand? And if this plays out as a battle ofthe sexes (of the four times that a girl and guy have made it to thefinals, three of the winners have been female), who would win in aDavid-Syesha showdown? Throw out your theories, PopWatchers!