Gosh, PopWatchers! I can’t believe it’s over! I mean, we’ve worked hard all season to bring you the Idol action from behind the scenes, and it’s just been so great to know you guys appreciated it. Gosh! Oh… I didn’t expect to cry…

Okay, so it’s not technically over: The Cook vs. Archuleta Ultimate Idoldome will soon be upon us all. (Two men enter A boy and a dude enter, one man boy/dude leaves…) But for my purposes, this season sure feels done, since I’ll be on vacation during the finale. And anyway, they’re moving to L.A.’s Nokia Theater for the big show, which gave everything at CBS Television City tonight a serious last-day-of-summer-camp vibe. In fact, as my fellow reporters and I crossed the parking lot after the broadcast — we take the short route now, having discovered the pages won’t stop us if we walk in a pack — stagehands were already starting to break things down inside, packing up high-def screens and strobe lights and Corey’s boombox for another year. Nothing left but the tears, PopWatchers, and some great memories that may have led me to at one point break into a quiet rendition of a Michael W. Smith song. Hey, friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the lord of them — and, well, I think we all know where this show stands with that guy.

So even though Richard Rushfield called me “remedial” tonight after I could not identify what season Vonzell Solomon graced the Idol stage (note: neither could Rushfield), I’m not afraid to admit that over these past few months I’ve let this show and its contestants — and Debbie, and the judges, and Corey, and darling, spastic little Ryan — worm their way right into my heart. Don’t believe me? Ask my coworkers. When Shirley decided to cover for me Tuesday night, I was legitimately upset. I’m afraid they’ll never let me live that down. But feelings aren’t for hiding, PopWatchers — they’re meant to be shared. So if I get a little sappy going forward, I hope you’ll forgive Aunt Whittlz her soft side. THIS… was my last American Idol. Gosh!

addCredit(“Fantasia: F Micelotta/Getty Images”)

Not too many celebrities in the house tonight… unless you count Allison Janney, Andrew Lloyd Webber (really, Sir?) and EVERY IDOL CONTESTANT EVER. I’m barely exaggerating — it was as though Nigel had loosed some sort of beacon into the sky, summoning all his little failure swallows back to Capistrano. They trickled in one by one over the course of the extra hour we sat there expecting a pre-tape that never came: Luke Menard with the masses, eventually settling amidst the Cook family; David Hernandez, who bonded with Archie’s banished dad; Ramiele, who went to visit with the Mercados; Chikezie, who got a nice hug from David Cook’s mom; last season’s Chris Richardson, who tried to shake his booty upon the judging platform but was immediately yanked down by someone wearing a headset; Michael Johns and Kristy Lee “KLK” Cook, who got a nice round of applause and some “We love you, Michael Johns!” squeals from the “mosh pit”; Brooke White, whose applause was masked by shrieks as a few stray Cheetah Girls moved across the floor; Carly, who entered under cover of Corey’s introductory “Aaaaaw yeah Hollywood somebody make some noise!!!” (nice improv, Corey!); Ms. Amanda Overmyer; and finally, Jason Castro, who settled into Losers’ Row just as the three remaining Idols took the stage.

First observation: Syesha was dressed like a chick who knew she was going home. With one minute left to air, the judges strolled in, greeting the past contestants on their way and creating something of a screechy bottleneck amidst the “moshers,” who kept the noise going straight through poor Debbie’s Opening Moment of Zen for what she later told us was the first time ever. Much like during all the last days of summer camp I’ve experienced in my life — and trust me, PopWatchers, there have been quite a few — no one seemed to muster up enough energy to care about this breach of tradition. The girls just kept screaming, the people in front of me just kept waving their signs (I desperately hope whoever brought “David A., I’ll Be Your Boo” was under the age of 21), and we plowed ahead, through the opening credits and Simon’s icky unbuttoned shirt and the eardrum-shattering rendition of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” When we hit the first commercial, the band resumed playing the group number with just the backup singers on the mic; it sounded exactly the same as (if not better than) the on-air performance, making me wonder how much vocal work the Top Three were actually doing. Debbie and Corey did a couple synchronized box steps on the stage, Paula went to chat with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Nurse, and the contestants just sat on the sofa, staring at all of us. Eventually, the backup gals sang, “R, A, N, D, Y Jackson, Randy… Jackson” and “S, I, M, O, N Cowell, Simon… Cowell” and we bumpily headed into the Ford commercial, during which David Cook got the biggest cheers of all.

They run the “What Happened Last Night Because We Know You Want To Relive Every Last Moment Of That Specialness” montage as Debbie and Ryan sort of mill listlessly around midstage; then Ryan heads to the sofa to introduce Fantasia (pictured). Debbie tries to stop the inevitable (yes, you heard her voice on air), but it’s too late: Ms. Barrino emerges sans one dancing girl for the world premiere of her new avant garde performance piece, American Gladiators: If It Had Musical Numbers. During this monstrosity, I am disappointed to see that Seacrest is not dancing. He’s just standing there, clapping, without a whole lot of pep. It is here that I decide to make my first apology of the season: I AM SORRY, Ryan Seacrest, if anything I’ve written has given you second thoughts about your Human Dancing Plant technique. It was not my intention to make you self-conscious, and I hope you will go back to feeling those beats only you can feel as soon as possible. You really are just the most adorable little man, and to think I’ve in any way caused you potential pain (or unnecessary stillness) is eating me up inside.

Fantasia stops making that awful noise and sashays off stage, but Debbie has to lean behind a column and wave the freshly-dyed redhead back out for her chat with Ryan. (I did love the fake Fantasia/Ryan makeout session, probably more than Ryan did.) We cut to commercial, Fantasia says, “Bye, y’all,” hugs Debbie, wraps her arms around Nigel’s neck, and takes off, leaving us with no one but ourselves once again. The judges return to Losers’ Row, vacating it with mere seconds to spare before we return to watch Archie’s trip home to Utah.

Here comes my second apology of the season, which will be accompanied by some light scolding of you, my darling PopWatchers: I have given David Archuleta a whole truckload of s— in these recaps, mostly as a reaction to what I viewed as unnecessary coddling from the producers and brainless, Children of the Corn-style zombie-worship from the Swaybots™ in the pit. Someone had to counterbalance that, and when he started turning in performances that read to me as mechanical and unadventurous, it was all too easy to attack the kid for being a waxy robot. But. BUT: He is demonstrably NOT autistic, and those of you who started tossing around that medical diagnosis as a pejorative last week were ever so slightly out of line, in my opinion. The last job I held before getting this gig at EW was teaching music at a school for kids with Asperger’s and other high-functioning spectrum disorders, and I guess I’d prefer we not go there. Is that fair? Can I ask that? You can keep calling me fat, I promise — just find another way to express your dissatisfaction with our young front-runner.

And on that note: I AM SORRY for being unrelenting in my mockery of Archie. When his homecoming montage played tonight, his live-and-in-person embarrassment at seeing himself on TV read all the way back in the last row of Section E. Thus, as he kept trying to flee only to be clutched by Debbie and turned back towards the screen, I started to feel real affection for the kid. By the time he tossed out his best line of the season — “Where did they park?” — I was too charmed by all the crying and “Gosh!”-ing to mind terribly when they totally ruined a terrific My Morning Jacket song by forever associating it in my mind with the squinty kid who catches rainbows. And hey! He finally came up with an answer for the “what’s been your biggest obstacle?” question! Hooray for learning and growing!

During the next commercial, the judges and Ryan attempted to tape some sort of Happy Birthday/Happy 500th Show video message to someone named “Paul.” It took them four chaotic tries to read from the teleprompter in unison, as Debbie just stood there with her mouth hanging open in disbelief. “Wait a minute. It’s Paul’s 500th birthday?” asked Randy. “I don’t even know who Paul is,” said Debbie. Then they taped some congratulations to Nigel for winning what I heard as “Cher’s Silver Spirit Award,” despite the fact that Nigel was standing behind them, and I don’t think Cher has a Silver Spirit Award. I understood very little of what transpired here.

Back, thank God, from commercial, and it was time for Syesha’s trip back to the loony bin of Florida, where mayors do handstands and her dad left me with the impression that his drug problems would most likely relapse if she didn’t make the finals. (I AM SORRY preemptively for that last remark, but come on.) As Sy sobbed about how happy she totally was, Brooke and Carly’s heads were together, most likely in ferocious debate about how this chick managed to beat them both; meanwhile, Archie just sat over on the sofas and grinned. I decided I liked Sy’s final hairstyle the best. When we went to break, someone brought Ms. Mercado a wad of kleenex as she walked to the couch. There, she put her arm around Little David and handed Debbie half the tissues, which Debbie used to wipe what looked to be either jelly or lipstick off her face. (I would later learn that Debbie’s a crier, so it also might have just been the residue of a thousand tears.) On the other side of the room, Corey was having an adorable conversation with an adorable young man named Jacob who was wearing a sweater vest, changed his age from seven to 12 when put on the spot, wasn’t sure what he did for a living, and did not want to be Corey’s assistant. Jacob would later be given Guitar Hero, a game whose box was bigger than he was.

Last but destined to be immortally not least, David Cook’s trip back to KC unspooled before us. And as he got to do the weather (OMG I want to do the weather), throw out the first pitch at a Royals game (OMG, I want to throw out the first pitch at a — okay, well, not a Royals game), and sing “Livin’ on a Prayer” in front of thousands of adoring fans, I’ll admit to getting a little choked up. Maybe it’s because his healthy brother was up there on stage with him, maybe it’s because D.Cook’s transformation from pudgy bartender with fashion-victim hair into polished, handsome performer is so stunning, maybe it’s because Ryan miscredited Chaka Khan for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”… I don’t know. But that’s where it hit me that this thing was coming down to the wire, and that my final hour had downright flown by. Simon, on the other hand, was feeling no such sentimentality: he was out of his chair and headed for the door before the last notes of the we’re-going-to-commercial-now noise had cleared the room. “They’re too important to sit there,” the woman next to me grumbled to her companion.

“Cheetah Girls are ready for some results!” Corey helpfully informed us during this break, as Syesha got a lipstick touchup, D.Cook got a big hug from Debbie, and Andrew Cook headed over to shake hands with Michael Johns. We snapped back to air fast — before Paula could get back to her chair — and cameramen swarmed the three families, ready to capture whatever happened once the penultimate results were read. I looked up, and even the orchestra (so fetchingly dressed in shades of Idol blue tonight) seemed to sit at attention.

When Archie’s name was read, his family stood to applaud. When David Cook’s name was read, the entire room erupted into pandemonium, my entire row leaping to its feet as one. Andrew Cook started sobbing so loudly his sniffles were audible from 30 feet away, and he wrapped Luke Menard in a big ol’ hug as Syesha began her farewell song. Tragically, despite my attempts to be nice to this family tonight, I cannot help but note that — in an echo of his behavior from Tuesday — Jeff Archuleta was the only non-judge within my line of sight who did not stand as Ms. Mercado belted out “If I Ain’t Got You.” Chikezie was pumping his fist in the air, the Swaybots™ were swaying, even Andrew Lloyd Webber was up and rockin’ it. But Jeff Archuleta? Nope.

ANYWAY. The minute the cameras cut out, Syesha was down shaking hands with the pit, and Ryan and Debbie were very animatedly, maybe even angrily, discussing something. (The presence of the words “Chaka Khan” on a certain notecard, perhaps?) We all tried to leave, but no dice — it was time to film the coin toss that decided what order the Davids would sing in next week. For those of you who prefer to remain unspoiled, I will now print the results in white font: Archie won, and thanks to prompting from his dad (and the whole entire audience), he elected to sing second. Poor Syesha was trapped on the sofa for all of this, even the three times they reshot closeups of Ryan (awkwardly) handling the coin. When this charade was at last complete, Sy stood and gave the boys her very best pageant clap, Debbie called the Top 12 to the stage, and as the big reunion commenced — complete with a leaping chest-bump between D.Cook and Michael Johns — I ducked out the back door with my journalist colleagues. On our way to freedom, we took a second to let out our own little whoops of joy. It was over. We had survived.

And so have you, PopWatchers, which means you get my fourth and final apology of the night: I AM SORRY that your Aunt Whittlz is incapable of brevity, and I thank you for suffering through these obsessively detailed reports. It is not my intention to natter on so, but it is, apparently, my wont. That’ll give me something to work on in these long, empty intervening months, eh? Come to think of it, what are you crazy kids gonna do with all your rabid affection and misdirected hostility once the show wraps up? Do you transfer it directly to So You Think You Can Dance, or are you gonna sock a little away for later, given that this is both an election and an Olympic year? Just wonderin’. Oh, and! Who’s gonna win?