By Adam B. Vary
Updated December 20, 2019 at 08:54 AM EST

BEFORE I BEGIN MY FINAL ON-THE-SCENE RECAP FROM THE AMERICAN IDOL THUNDERDOME AT CBS TELEVISION CITY, CAN I JUST TELL YOU THAT — oh, wait, sorry. My ears are still filled with what I can only describe as the Emergency Broadcast System tone turned up to 11 thanks to all the squeals, screams, and shrieks that buffeted the Idol Thunderdome’s walls for pretty much the entire tension-packed hour, and that’s including the commercial breaks. So let’s start again: Can I just tell you that after last night’s results show was over; after Ryan told Kris Allen he had become the first Idol cannon fodder to have a real shot at winning the whole shebang (as opposed to, you know, Diana DeGarmo); after Danny Gokey learned his fairy tale story — i.e. going from true tragedy to the fleeting “triumph” of becoming a judges’ favorite on a reality singing competition show — had ended in third place; and after Simon caused viewers everywhere to make a bumble-fuzzed “wuzzah?” face when he called next week’s finale a “big ding-dong,” I witnessed one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen in my three years of covering this infuriating, invigorating national obsession. The moment the show was off the air, Kris Allen’s mother raced over to Adam Lambert’s mother and the two women gave each other pretty much the biggest Proud-Mamas hug ever. I could’ve sworn my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin had a tear in his eye, although that probably was just because he’d no longer have the pleasure of watching Danny Gokey “meditate” by placing a single finger upon his stubbly chin.

ANYhoo. When I arrived at the Thunderdome, it was my first time there since The Incidents — not to be confused, of course, with “The Incident,” last night’s off-the-hizzy Lost season finale, which I’m beginning to think has conspired with last night’s nail-biter Idol results show to give me my first ever pop-culture ulcer — and I gotta say, the Idol stage looked somehow…emptier, more foreboding, since I’d last seen it. This probably has something to do with the fact that the band was banished back to the top level, and that Idol‘s thumping behind-the-scene’s heart Debbie the Stage Manager was still MIA. (Though I’m given to understand that she’s mending well. Feel better Debbie!) But still, that ominously wide open stage set my mood for the rest of the hour, which wobbled from slow-burn anxiety to all-consuming dread to mordant bemusement that I can still care so deeply about this show.

As I settled into my seat, Kevin Bacon sauntered into the studio, thereby technically pulling Kara DioGuardi to within one degree of him. As Cory the Warm Up Comic began his routine, the season 8 Idols were brought into their seats, Megan Joy dancing to Cory’s booting shaking music by flapping her arms like a chicken. (In the din, I couldn’t tell if she let free a “caw caw!” But I doubt it.) After they were seated and Cory was finished getting a sizable gentleman with a cane to demonstrate some hypnotic badonk bouncing skills, Cory announced Blake Lewis’ entrance, and, I feel bad about this, but for a second I had to remember what the guy even looked like. Cory then asked Anoop if his LA Dodgers shirt was a Manny Ramirez jersey. It wasn’t.

The Idols were seated in the following order, from left to right: The first row was Giraud, Anoop, Scott, Jasmine, Allison and Lil. The second row was Megan, Alexis, Sarver and Jorge. (Pop EW Poll! Which of those shorthand names had you stopping for a second to recall who s/he actually was?!) I point out the seating order because it seemed particularly cruel to me to place three of the tallest dudes there — namely Giraud, Anoop and Scott — directly in front of two of the shortest women there, namely Megan and Alexis. Seriously, Alexis doesn’t even come up to Giraud’s shoulder. Yet it didn’t appear to occur even once to these guys to, you know, offer to switch rows with the ladies. Smirkelstitskin was quite pleased. Quite pleased indeed.

Cory introduced Randy, who made a point to swing by the Idols and say hello. Cory introduced Kara, who walked up to the judges’ table and then wandered over to the stage right Swaypit to shake some hands. Cory introduced Simon, who greeted the stage left Swaypit, walked over to his chair, and began waving to the stage right Swaypit. By this point, Kara had worked her way back to her chair. While Simon was waving, she raced up behind his shoulder, popped up from behind his back, and began enthusiastically wagging her arms at the stage right Swaypit, who responded as programmed and began cheering wildly. When she was done, she looked at Simon like a little sister who had totally just gotten her meanie big brother, like, omigod totally. Simon, in turn, looked at Kara like he couldn’t quite understand why a grown woman was trying to goad total strangers into cheering more loudly for her than for him. It was at this point, oddly, that I realized Paula was nowhere to be seen.

The Top 3 came on stage, and Allison immediately began pumping her fists in what I can only assume was Adam Lambert’s direction. 20 seconds to go, and still no Paula. The show began with Ben Stiller’s “funny” “plug” for his movie; by my count, there were exactly zero laughs in the studio. Still no Paula. Ryan announced there were over 88 million votes for last night’s results, and Adam immediately hid his face, the first time I think I’ve seen him really let the magnitude of what is actually about to happen to him sink in (and that’s including his home town visit video package — but we’ll get to that in a bit). Still no Paula. It was only right before Ryan began introducing the judges that Paula finally took to her seat, which is probably a tardiness record, even for her. Ah, Debbie, see what happens when you’re not around to crack the whip?

Alicia Keys slowly strutted through the Idol Thunderdoors, and the crowd — which had been alerted by Cory that Jordin Sparks and Katy Perry were in the building, but not Ms. Keys — took a moment to realize it actually was Alicia Keys before launching into the requisite standing ovation. As Alicia Keys went through her introduction, one of the backup singers marched onto the stage, turned, saw no one was with her, and marched promptly back again, only to be turned around again by an audible voice barking “Go now!” (Do you see, Debbie? Do you see?) Then Alicia Keys introduced the energetic young Rwandan gentleman whose performance sounded suspiciously piped in to me, although that didn’t stop Alicia Keys from dancing along in the wings.

At the ad break, the top 3 were whisked backstage, and Randy raced up to the stage to meet Noah and/or glad-hand Alicia Keys. (Why do I keep repeating her full name? Because you have to. Try it now. Try thinking about Alicia Keys and then say just “Alicia.” It sounds wrong, doesn’t it? It has to be “Alicia Keys.” Even “Ms. Keys” doesn’t work; that sounds like an elementary music teacher’s name. But I digress — and I know how some of y’all just love that.) Simon and Paula made their way over to the Idols to say hello, and Jorge nearly crawled over Alexis so he could once again have Ms. Abdul clasp him to her bosom. Through it all, Cory began handing out specially designed Danny Gokey t-shirts, his delivery procedure consisting of his asking who in the audience were Danny Gokey fans and then throwing said t-shirts at whichever section of the audience was the most deafening and/or contained Danny’s most ardently adorable moppet supporters. I began to realize precisely why my On the Scene recap colleague Whitney Pastorek brings earplugs to these things.

With 10 seconds to go, the judges were back in their seats, and we were into Danny Gokey’s and Kris Allen’s home town visits. (Was I the only one whose stomach hit the floor when Ryan called Danny’s name first before realizing the results on Top 3 night always come at the very end?) There’s not much behind-the-scenery that occurred during these video packages, since the audience sat at rapt attention and the judges refrained from making an egregious display of talking with each other. But I did pick up on one curious detail. After Danny’s video package, he got a standing O, and eventually all the Idols joined the audience — Anoop and Giraud the last among them. Kris also got a standing O after his video package, but all the Idols were immediately at their feet.

Once we were into the next ad break, Kris settled back into the benches with the preternatural calm I’d come to expect from him. Cory asked the audience who wanted Kris t-shirts, and the response was appreciably more ear-blistering than for Danny’s shirts. As the PAs set the stage for Jordin, Kevin Bacon walked over to greet the Idols. Danny disappeared for a tick. Kevin Bacon chatted up Paula. Danny reappeared. Sarver left his seat and walks over to Kevin Bacon for a much more in-depth meet and greet (Michael, you were my favorite person to talk to at the Top 13 party, so please tell me you did not ask to be an honorary Bacon Brother). Kris and Danny made idle chitchat while staring into the middle distance.

Yet again, the judges did not reach their seats until Ryan mentioned Ryan Tedder was accompanying Jordin Sparks’ new single with the curiously Pat Benetar-y lyrics about love and it’s being a battlefield and the like. (Alexis and Megan Joy stood in the aisle so they could actually see Jordin toss around that fantabulous weave. Seriously, guy Idols, way to be chivalrous. Keep it up.) Kris Allen, meanwhile, was seat dancing with just enough exuberance that it threw off poor Ryan’s concentration, forcing the host to involuntarily “move” to the music like a sleeping dog might while it dreams of chasing after a squirrel.

At the break, Simon, Paula and Randy left, Jordin dropped the diva pose and giddily waved to the crowd, Kara walked over to the Idols to say hello, and Cory brought out the third and final sack-o-shirts of the night. “This bag says ‘Adam'” was all Cory had to intone to launch the audience into an Oprah’s Favorite Things level meltdown. (I told you: Ears. EBS tone. TURNED TO ELEVEN.) Anoop even jokingly began crawling across the catwalk behind the judges’ table to get to Cory’s bag o’Lambertian goodies. At least, I think he was joking.

When it came time for Adam Lambert’s trip back home, the native San Diegoian (San Diegan? San Diegorian? San Diegoer?) stood a good six feet at least from Ryan while watching his video package. More curious still, when the lights came back on, the presumptive Idol frontrunner did not receive the presumed standing O. No joke: I didn’t see a single person, including any of the Idols, stand up…except for Kris Allen’s family, who all made a point to stand in support. My guess is that Adam’s cool-headed demeanor during his time home didn’t jerk those tears the way that Kris and Danny’s trips did, and therefore the audience felt no need for vertical encouragement, but, really, I’m still at a loss for what to make of it. It’s not like Adam’s hurting for love from the crowd; at the ad break, Cory worked through the leftover Danny, Kris and Adam shirts (all made, apparently, by fans via, and as the gaping hole where my eardrums should be demonstrates, the audience’s desire for the Glambert swag quite handily won the day.

While Cory goaded the audience’s central nervous systems to collapse with promise of free stuff, the PAs began setting up for Katy Perry’s performance, a task that wasn’t nearly finished by the time we were coming back from the break. As roadies frantically tended to one of the guitarist’s foot pedals, Debbie the Stage Manager’s stand-in gave Ryan that ole reliable showbiz standby, the “streeeetch it out!” taffy-pull hand gesture. Which is why Ryan punted it over to Danny to talk about how the Gokester was having a hard time dealing with what’s essentially an elaborate, hour-long “steeeeetch it out!” taffy-pull of a results show. I’m not sure, meanwhile, if Adam Lambert could tell that the roadies had finally finished when he blurted out “I want to see Katy Perry!” But judging from how far he rocked back onto the Idol Thunderbenches with his hands firmly clutched to his face when he first saw her, Glambert definitely did not know that Ms. Perry had embroidered her Elvis cape with his name. Halfway through the performance, Adam slapped his hand on top of his head and turned to his friends in the audience, with a look that I can only describe thusly: “OMG YOU GUYS! O! M! G!!!” I was disappointed when after the set, neither Ms. Perry nor Mr. Lambert made an effort to greet each other on stage, although I suspect the two will pencil in some time to grab some coffee and/or buy spandex onesies together quite soon, if they haven’t already. Instead, at the ad break, Adam simply gushingly mimed his excitement to his friends in the audience, who happily mimed back.

The Top 3 were then moved center stage, at which point my extremities began tingling in a most peculiar fashion. Danny, Kris and Adam all shared a quick good luck back-slap-hug, we were back from the break, Kris was in the finals, and his fellow Idols in the audience could not have been more thrilled: Anoop, Lil, Allison, everyone. Then it was Adam’s turn to be ushered into his Nokia Theater moment. The audience lost its collective caca once again, the Idols quite less so, because, really, they’d all been beaten down with Adam’s inevitability since the word go, so why get worked up about it now? But you know who was pretty much just as thrilled about Adam as they were about Kris? That’s right: The Allens. (In the interest of fair play, I should note that when Danny Gokey hit his climatic note in his farewell performance, Michael Sarver stood on his seat while emphatically clapping for a good three seconds.)

Simon nattered on about a big ding dong, the 19 Entertainment logo popped and chimed, and Kara was, as per usual, first on the stage to pass along her words of wisdom to the newest Idol non-winner. The audience stuck around for the finale coin toss, and I’m sure the vigilant Idol fanatics among you already know Kris won, and he chose Adam to go first. (What was that again about Kris not having a killer instinct?) The producers, however, weren’t happy with the shot of Ryan revealing the side of the coin with Kris’ face on it, and so they had to shoot the toss again. Only it came up Adam this time. So they shot it again. And it came up Adam again. And again. And again. Finally, Kris came up heads, but the camera wasn’t on. The sixth time was finally the charm, and we were all sent home. On my way up the stairs, I looked over to my right, and caught Kris’ parents locked in a long, lingering hug. Yes, Ma and Pa Allen, your son really did it.

So, PopWatchers, are you happy with the results? Were you surprised to learn Adam was a Katy Perry fan, or that the feeling was apparently mutual? Do you think there’s any significance to the narrow one million vote margin between Kris and Adam, or was that a one-time, anyone-but-Danny phenomenon? How did you feel about the show’s sudden embrace of Danny’s late wife after so many weeks of completely ignoring she existed at all? Do you think Paula, Kara, et. al. did Danny any favors by pimping him so early in the show? What the heck is a “big ding dong” anyway? And what odds do you want to give me that Norman Gentle and Tatiana Del Toro sing a duet during Wednesday’s two hour finale show?