By Adam B. Vary
Updated April 16, 2009 at 05:30 PM EDT

Sorry, Smirkelstiltskin, but you’re going to have to sit this one out. Even though, during last night’s American Idol results show, we were seated just two rows away from Cory the Warm-Up Comic’s first ever pro-Cory-sign-brandishing fan club (i.e. his family); even though Danny Gokey kept making his hand into a heart and flashing it with a doofy grin to his friends and family in the audience, and they kept flashing it back; and even though the person sitting next to us was wearing an “I [heart] Kara” t-shirt with the word “Kara” in a font that made it look like the letters were literally on fire, my snark demon has packed it in for the night. It may not have quite seemed so on the TV, but when Matt Giraud sang his way to safety — and, I assure you, in that room, it definitely came over that it was his singing that saved him — it was such a rousing, moving climax that it simply proved far too genuinely emotional for poor Smirkel to handle. He simply exploded then and there on my shoulder in a cloud of sulfur and glitter paint.

Truth be told, much of the evening up until that moment was deadly dull. Both Jennifer Hudson and Miley Cyrus were pre-taped, so for much of the show, we simply sat in darkness and watched J. Hud let it rip (in spite of clear nerves and ear monitor issues) and Miley bleat like a slightly ill baby donkey (in spite of the painfully obvious fact that she wouldn’t have made it to the semi-finals of Nashville Star, let alone Idol). During J. Hud’s segment, neither the Idols nor the judges were even in the studio at all. But you know who was? That’s right, the official American Matinee Idol, Zac Efron! Allllltogether now: Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

addCredit(“Michael Becker/Fox”)

Indeed, the 17 Again star entered the Idol Thunderdome before the show to as squeal-ific a reception as any Adam Lambert or Kris Allen have received this season. By this point in the evening, Debbie the Stage Manager had already plotzed over the rare sight of audience signs for Cory and band leader Rickey Minor. But where, I ask you, were the signs for Debbie? Best I can tell, this delightfully formidable woman doesn’t even have her own Facebook group yet, so I think I may have to dragoon Whittlz into helping me start a Debbie the Stage Manager Fan Club. Screw journalistic objectivity — for my next Idol stint during the Top 5 week, I may just have to bring my own “Debbie Rocks!” signage.

Mr. Efron, meanwhile, may have single-handedly thwarted what I’m beginning to suspect is some kind of crazy-genius plot on the part of Cory to bring down the entire American Idol juggernaut from the inside. For the second night in a row, he nonchalantly informed the audience that, since the night’s group number was “a song that you’re going to know,” we could all “stand up and sing it too.” Encouraging the Swaybots to clap wildly off the beat is one thing, but I cannot imagine Ken Warwick and Co. actually want hockey dads and tween girls belting “Maniac” along with Danny Gokey and Lil Rounds on live TV. (Not that tween girls would even recognize the song, seeing as they were all born over a friggin’ decade after its initial release, but I digress.) Whatever nefarious ideas Cory may have planted in the audience’s head, however, they simply evaporated into distant memory the moment the warm-up comic announced the entrance of Zac Efron. As I noted before, all anyone could hear (let alone think) at that moment was: Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

His arrival was so momentous, in fact, that for the first time in memory, Paula was the first judge to arrive in the studio. True to form, she made a beeline right for the singing, dancing, ’80s-body-switching-teen-comedy-reviving, skinny-jeans-addicted phenom. And as we counted down to the final minute before the show, all the other judges made a point to pay their respects to the Efron as well.

After Ryan opened the show, rather than sprinting up the catwalk to make his apparently contractual entrance down the Idol Thunderstairs, he simply started walking up the stairs as they rolled out onto the stage and then walked back down them. The tactic didn’t work quite as well for Kris, who appeared to almost lose his balance and stumble down the stairs when he galloped up them to his starting mark for the group number, causing my stomach to drop for a fleeting moment. As we entered the first ad break, Kris made a point to walk down to Paula and give her a big hug, an ostensible apology for startling her under the judges’ table when he approached. Kris, how many times must we tell you, no sudden movements around Paula!

For those of you who read yesterday’s on the scene recap, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to learn that there was indeed another bald, earpiece-, Gap slacks-, and button down shirt-wearing bodyguard seated next to the Efron, and said beefy gentleman did indeed abandon his decoy charge the moment the on-the-air light went off so he could tend to his true flock, the four Idol judges. “Mystery” “solved!” The Idols, meanwhile, took to the couches with a low-grade but noticeable unease, especially along the non-Adam Lambert occupied bottom row. After I finished my initial survey of their pre-results disposition, I realized the Efron had been inexplicably moved to pretty much the corresponding seat on the right side of the audience. He would stay there only for the 17 Again premiere segment, and then moved back to his original seat for the rest of the show. Why the Efron couldn’t just stay in the same chair all night is a mystery best left to the stars and/or wildly speculative message board commenters.

More important, during the 17 Again premiere video package, I picked up on two major scoops about the Efron: One, when he gets nervous, he nibbles on his fingernails; and two, the dude was totally chewing gum, a massive no-no at CBS Television City, where the red-blazer-wearing pages sweep through the audience before the show with a paper cup, demanding everyone spit out their well-masticated strips of Doublemint and/or Dentyne. Man, some heartthrobs just get all the breaks. Not that the Efron isn’t ungrateful. In fact, after we learned Allison was safe, Adam was safe, and Anoop was once again bottom three’d, the Efron was all over that audience during the ad break, happily shaking hands and making nice with pretty much everyone seated in his section.

I was so enamored by just how easygoing the Efron was, in fact, that I completely missed the Idols and judges exit from the studio, and barely caught the four stand-ins who took the judges’ seats for Ryan’s brief introduction of the J. Hud segment. Once that began, the stand-ins were whisked away just as quickly, and we all settled in for a long stretch of watching J. Hud work it out on the Idol Thunderscreen. During the subsequent ad break, the Idols returned, the Efron disappeared, and Kris took the opportunity to begin his campaign to show the High School Musical star how being a nice guy is really done. That’s right: It’s a Mensch-Off! When Cory discovered a young girl in the audience who professed her love for Lil Rounds, Kris wrapped one arm around Lil’s shoulder and pointed to her with a proud smile that said Aw yeah, check it out, we gots Lil Rounds right here. (Point, Kris Allen.) Then the Efron returned, making it clear that unlike so many other big-time celebs who make a special promotional appearance (coughcoughJimCarreycough), he was going to go the distance and watch the entire show from whichever chair the producers decided they wanted him in at that moment. (Point, the Efron.)

Coming back from the ad break, Simon was the only judge to make it to his seat before we were on the air. The Brit tersely told Anoop he did deserve to be in the bottom three, and Adam shot the judge a big ol’ salty smirk. Simon then told Kris that his “Falling Slowly” was, point of fact, “brilliant,” and Kara immediately turned to Simon with a look of tickled incredulity. “Reeeeeally?!” she seemed to say to Simon. “Really,” he seemed to curtly nod back to her. Kris was safe (but didn’t assume he was until Ryan made it absolutely clear — point, Kris Allen), Lil was not, Danny was safe, Matt was not, and after Ryan assembled the bottom three, Anoop was told he was now welcome back at the benches.

We hopped into the ad break. Anoop won an adorable little-sis hug from Allison, and then slumped onto the bench and fell into a steaming bowl of self-pity stew. Back in the audience, the Efron took much of the ad break to chat up a well-dressed kid in an electric wheelchair and the woman I took to be said kid’s mother, making a point to remain crouched at the kid’s natural eye-line for much of the conversation. (Point, the Efron.) Danny flashed the first of many, many, many heart-shaped hand signals to buddies in the audience, who flashed their heart-shaped hand signals right back to him. I caught my favorite sign of the night, which read “Yo Amo Allison,” with the “o” in “Amo” shaped like a heart. Debbie told the Swaypit to applaud over their heads at the end of Miley Cyrus’ pre-taped performance so that we could seamlessly transition back onto live TV at the end of it. They were so eager to oblige that some began clapping well before Miley was finished artistically tousling her hair “singing.”

Ryan told the home audience we’d be back after the break, twice, and immediately afterwards, Debbie debuted a brilliant braying laugh that solidified my fervent hope to someday throw back a few margaritas with her. As Paula snagged the Efron for a photo, I took note of the body language between Allison, Adam, Kris, Danny and Anoop, who were lined up on the bench together in that order. The first three sat thigh-to-thigh-to-thigh, naturally leaning in to each other to gab and laugh, clearly thick as thieves. On the other end, Anoop generally sulked, occasionally cracking a true smile, and always leaning a not inappreciable distance back and away from the rest of the crew. In between sat Danny, lighthearted but restive and a little awkward, like the guy at the high school lunch table who perpetually has to work at being the happy-go-lucky jokester. In the audience, I spotted a guy wearing Gokey-esque glasses, sporting a massive sign that featured a pic of Danny next to a Photoshopped pic of Simon made to look like he was wearing a pair of Gokey-esque glasses. “Simon,” read the sign, “you should update your style with GOKEY glasses.”

Debbie pulled Matt and Lil center stage, we came back from the break, and Ryan gave the dueling piano bar player the bad news. And it was at this precise moment that the mood inside the studio shifted into an entirely new gear. Far be it from me to wander into crazy Paula territory, but the only way I can describe what happened in there is that when Ryan handed Matt his mic, the energy in the room just changed, became more charged and focused. Right before Matt began to sing, Danny yelled “Come on!” like a track teammate rooting on his buddy right before the big race — but no one could hear him, since the entire audience was awash in vocal cheerleading.

And then Matt started singing. I’ve since watched the performance back on TV, so I know the guy’s vocals weren’t even close to flawless. And, to be fair, I spent a good deal of the performance madly scribbling notes, so my ears weren’t exactly giving him their undivided attention. But I’ve noted before in this column that nine times out of ten, the singers sound better on the studio sound system, which tends to blast out subtle vocal imperfections, than they do on your TV speakers. That was definitely the case with Matt. He just sounded good, solid, far better than he did the night before — so much so, in fact, that I’m pretty sure Simon actually meant to say he thought Matt was better last week instead of last night. Regardless, before Matt was even through the chorus, his fellow Idols were shooting each other knowing looks that clearly meant “Oh man, he’s nailing it — he’s totally getting saved!” Once Matt made it to the bridge, stepping down to the platform in front of the judges, the audience was pretty much beside itself. Whole sections spontaneously rose en masse, like a stadium crowd watching an underdog running back miraculously closing in on the goal line. When he finished, the crowd roared their approval, and Kris and Allison mimed throwing their shoes at him, they were so happy. (Point, and match, Kris Allen.)

As the judges deliberated, those chants of “Save! Save! Save!” — goaded on by all six remaining Idols — brought a huge grin to my face. This show, especially this season, practically demands cynicism from its audience, and yet it is still capable of providing a truly unrehearsed, authentic, completely cheesy capital-M Moment. I could practically hear the score from Rudy playing in the background, and I loved it.

I would not be surprised at all, by the way, if you’re rolling your eyes right now — it was amazing to me just how little all of this came through on TV. But trust me: I’m not exaggerating, or, at least, I’m not exaggerating how I personally experienced it all. And besides, you don’t need to be a cynic to recognize that Simon Cowell can read a room’s mood as well as anyone, and that room was quite clearly pointing him in only one direction. As my boyfriend pointed out to me after watching last night’s show, like the gun in Hedda Gabler, or the bomb on the freighter from season 4 of Lost, you don’t brandish a device like the “judges’ save” unless you intend to use the darn thing, and I daresay the judges were never going to find a better time to do it this season than last night.

Not surprisingly, the joyous mood spilled over after the show. (Well, save for Simon, who was gone from sight so swiftly that I suspect he knows how to apparate.) The 19 Entertainment twinkle had barely chimed before Paula was rushing the stage to hug Matt before happily handing him off to the rest of the well-wishers. Danny signed posters and made multiple heart hand signals. Adam and Kris giggled with Ms. Abdul, at one point indulging in what looked like some proto-disco moves in anticipation of the Paula-choreographed group number next week. And Anoop had a serious, lengthy heart-to-heart with Kara, causing me to wonder if maybe she actually is providing regular constructive feedback to the Idols, just away from the cameras, time constraints, and watchful eyes of the Idol producers. Whoa. If I’m not too careful, my snark demon may forsake me altogether.

But tell me, Popwatchers, was Matt’s save as exciting for you at home as it was for me in the studio? Or am I just a big ol’ softy who’s clearly lost whatever edge he ever hoped to maintain? And what should I put on my sign for Debbie that is less lame than “Debbie Rocks”?