By Whitney Pastorek
Updated April 08, 2010 at 10:26 AM EDT
Michael Becker/Fox

Image Credit: Michael Becker/FoxWell, Kara. Don’t ever say Simon never did nothin’ fer ya.

The climax of tonight’s American Idol results show was the judges’ “unanimous” decision to save Big Mike from the jaws of irrelevance for another week, and the scene in the Idoldome as he sang for his survival was like something out of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Verukara Salt wanted a golden goose, she wanted a golden goose now, and she was not going to stop until Daddy gave her one. Kara begged. She pleaded. She cajoled. She clenched her fists and stomped her feet and refused to take no for an answer. It was beautiful to witness, all that emotion coming out of one tiny, overstyled body, trying to rescue a relative stranger from a fate that’s likely to befall him at some point in the next three weeks anyway.

Was this the right time to use The Save, PopWatchers? Was it the right person? Will it matter in the long run? Unless you happen to have Matt Giraud on speed dial, the answer to that third question may forever linger unknown. But it sure did make good entertainment for a second there. THIS…was American Idol.

Rihanna’s performance was today’s pre-tape, and I walked into the Idoldome to see her standing on the catwalk behind the judges’ table, strapped into a Flying V guitar. The mosh pits were flooded with thick, milky fog, Debbie the Stage Manager rising out of the mist like a plaid Loch Ness Monster. There were flamethrowers, there was a huge band setup complete with forward-tilted keyboard, there were grinder girls in steel breastplates milling about the bleachers. The judges’ chairs were removed as the audience was escorted in and Ri-Ri (note: not Ry-Ry) taped an interview in the middle of the stage. “It’s crazy what’s gonna happen,” Cory the Warmup Comedian told the excited crowd. “React accordingly.”

Lacey Brown was back tonight, signing the t-shirts of two small crew-cutted boys seated at the end of my row. The Stairs of Death were wheeled out, and Debbie bravely scaled their great heights, showing no signs of fear from her terrifying fall last season. There she stood, silhouetted in dramatic magenta, counting down the minutes until the pre-tape would begin. “This song is hot,” Cory told us. “Obviously, at the end, we’ll all be standing.”

Debbie called out, “We are rolling,” and two men in black emerged to light the giant sterno pots on either side of the stairs. “Audience, I’ll cue you when to applaud,” said Debbie, but there was no need — as Rihanna emerged at the top of the staircase, clad in her shiny vinyl linebacker suit, the place went nuts. Much like Kara didn’t know what to make of Siobhan’s performance last night, I remain a little perplexed as to what I think about “Rock Star,” but I can tell you that 1) Rihanna was indeed singing with her very own voice, and 2) the grinder girls looked really dumb in person.

When Ri-Ri finished the number, she stood on the center platform, blowing kisses and waving to the crowd. “Sssssomeone’s a rock staaaaar,” Cory sibilantly sang, thus helpfully connecting the song’s theme and the production’s intent, for those still lost. Rihanna needed but that one take, and before departing, she took a second to borrow Cory’s mic and say, “Thank you guys. Thank you so much. You guys are awesome. Have fun.” The air was smoky. It smelled like the Fourth of July, like that sad part of the night when the fireworks are all used up and no one’s quite sure who’s gonna get stuck with the leftover potato salad.

With quite a bit of time to kill before the broadcast started — and the audience spiraling into asphyxiated naptime thanks to the pyrotechnical residue in the air — Cory decided he wanted to “do something.” I was initially skeptical, as is my wont, but then he grabbed the two crew-cutted boys from the end of my row and had them put on a dance exhibition. Max, 7, and Jack, 9, were a couple of little charmers from Jersey, and they breakdanced/sprinklered/pencil-sharpened their way right into our hearts. For those unfamiliar with the latter dance, it’s where you stick one arm straight out in front of you (the pencil) and crank an invisible handle on your back (the sharpener). It is my new favorite thing of all time. After winning us all over, Max and Jack told Cory their favorite Idol was Big Mike, but they weren’t allowed to vote for him because their mom likes Crystal. Cory helpfully solved that problem by giving Max and Jack their very own Samsung Mythic, which is a type of phone. To her credit, Mom did not punch Cory.

Tonight’s lone celebrity audience member was Quinton Aaron, star of The Blind Side, and while I hesitate to draw too many parallels between him and Big Mike, I can tell you that the only person the small children of the Idoldome love more than Big Mike is Quinton Aaron. Even though most people know him only as IsThatTheGuyFromBlindSide?, Quinton’s entrance was met with total unfiltered glee. In exchange, he flashed the room a sweet, sheepish smile. The cockles of my heart, they warmed.

Afternoon turned to evening. A pair of moms and daughters arrived in the audience, split into the rows in front of and behind me. One of the moms had a “MamaSox Rox” sign, and sweetly offered to switch places with her mom friend when I mentioned it was blocking my view. The daughters had signs, too, heavily glitter-encrusted numbers supporting Tim (“Timmay“) and Big Mike. The judges came through the crowd: Kara, then Randy, then Ellen, who hugged Kara. Your. Top. 9. did a fly-by, silver microphones in hand, to set up for the group number. Ryan and Simon entered simultaneously. The judges huddled as the Look How Good They All Did Last Night intro montage began, and we were underway.

Although tonight’s Lennon/McCartney medley was really more of a Beatles Catalog Lotto Number Drawing (“Aaaand, the next ball up… is… ‘All You Need is Love’!”), I feel it was enhanced by both the monochromatic costume design and the minimal dancing. The tempo changes between each song nugget wreaked havoc on the swaybots’ rhythm, but everyone really nailed the final lift-the-cloud ending pose, and the crowd loved it. I’m pretty sure this year’s senior production of Godspell is gonna be the best one yet.

We cut to commercial and the girls were hauled off for wardrobe changes while the boys got to recline. Cory broke the tragic news to a girl with a “Siobhan is the Bomb” sign that she’d been holding it upside down through the whole medley, then he coached us all through expressing the proper level of disappointment at the night’s inevitably disappointing results. With 20 seconds to spare, the girls and the judges made it back to their seats, and the Ford commercial began. Here is what I learned: Girls like Tim. Older ladies like Casey. The mosh pits like Andrew. Aaron needs to step it up. I did not learn anything about Ford.

Didn’t like the fake-out as Ryan “activated” the first set of “shocking!” results, because I am just enough of a pessimist/realist to believe that the girls could easily have been Your Bottom Three tonight. (For more, visit my new blog, WhyDoTweenageGirlsHateOtherGirlsSoMuch Dot Com.) Not sure the three ladies liked it much, either, or the crowd. When Ryan pronounced the dwindling females safe, the mom in front of me with the sign said, “That wasn’t nice.” Tim Urban relaxed back into the safety sofa with a big “Wow.” Once we cut to commercial and she returned to the couch, the expression on Katie’s face was that of a girl who might never trust again. Ryan made up for the freak-out by high-fiving her.

The mom in front of me got noticed for her “MamaSox Rox” sign during this break, earning a blown kiss from Crystal herself. This caused something to snap in the mom’s brain, and she turned around in her chair. “Hold your signs up!” she implored the daughters in the row behind me. When they were reticent to comply, she said it again. I would wager she asked the daughters to hold their signs up at least a dozen times over the course of the show. I am pretty sure she made those signs herself. I am also sure that this form of stage parenting has limited applications outside of the Idoldome, but as a Childless Spinster, I do so enjoy watching the families who visit the Idoldome. Most of the time, the parents are more excited than their kids. (Dad in the Orange Sweater from Tuesday night, if you’re out there, please know that your ignorance of the term “cougar” totally made my week.)

Back from commercial for Jason Derulo’s performance, which was like the bus-and-truck version of Rihanna’s. There was the huge band, complete with forward-tilted keyboard. (Is this an ergonomic thing? A tribute to the keytar? Why are we too cool to play piano horizontally all of a sudden?) There were flamethrowers. In place of grinder girls, there were girls, grinding. Your. Top. 9. sat on the couches and tried not to get stepped on by dancers, and I tried to parse their facial expressions. Aaron was clapping along. Andrew and Big Mike were grooving, Ryan was doing his awkward bouncing thing, and Katie was singing along. As far as I can tell, Lee looks like he’s having his toenails ripped out at all times. Everyone else was just kinda sitting there. Oh, except for Kara. Kara was more jazzed than Violet Beauregarde at the Fruit Stripe factory. I didn’t have many opinions about what I was watching beyond a strong belief that One Glove = Rock Star, but Two Gloves = Hillside Strangler. Every time a flamethrower blasted, I could feel the heat on my nose.

During the break, Debbie sent Jason Derulo over to meet n’ greet the Idols, and the judges followed close behind. Kara kissed Jason Derulo on the cheek (he’s her own personal Everlasting [this month anyway] Gobstopper!), Simon congratulated him warmly, then spent a few moments with the contestants. Debbie coached the guys on where they’d stand during the next activation of results, and the mom in front of me told her daughter to “Show Big Mike your sign!”

They rolled out a grand piano. “Please welcome to the stage, Mister David Archuleta,” Debbie said, and he entered to warm screeches. With his Spock hair and pasty complexion, Archie looked more A.I. than ever — except for his poor nervous shaking horizontal-piano-playing hands, projected on the big screen behind him — but his recycled “Imagine” would have put him through to the next round in this or any other season of the show. Your. Top. 9. listened respectfully, Aaron rocking back and forth slightly, perhaps engaging in some focused visualization exercises. I found it reassuring that our seventh season runner-up still slouches and cannot articulate a complete thought, despite his worldwide fame and fortune. I did not like the way they sent him off without a commercial break to honor his exit. I may not be the biggest Archie fan in the world (or an Archie fan), but you can’t pretend like his gravy train wasn’t a thick and meaty one. Don’t treat the kid like some random bagpipe player.

Ryan activated more results: Lee went to the far side, where he looked ever so slightly less waterboarded than usual, and even gave the pit a small wave. Big Mike was near side. “Put your sign up,” said Mom. Casey: Far side. Aaron: Near side. Tim: Eeeeeeeeeeee! Far side, which was now unquestionably safe. Andrew: Near side.

Right about here, Ellen began looking genuinely concerned. Although she correctly predicted the Big Mike/Aaron/Andrew Bottom Three, I believe it took every ounce of strength in her sneakers to do so. Mom in front of me kept shooting daughter looks to put up her Big Mike sign, at one point just turning around and staring with those Mom-Dagger eyes. The daughter tentatively held up the sign.

When Aaron was the first Bottom Three contestant to be sent back to the couches, Lee couldn’t even look him in the eye. In fact, Lee actually leaned slightly away from Aaron. When we cut to commercial, Lee stood up and tried to go to Andrew to comfort him, but was pulled back by a staffer. It was heartbreak incarnate! Lee and Andrew, being torn apart by fate, their perfect love at risk, and the men not even allowed to hold each other! Crystal tried to hug Lee, but he was just inconsolable. Seriously, the kid could barely walk.

Meanwhile, Tim and Casey were all smiles. Aaron just looked guilty. The girls in the top row were laughing, engaging the pit. I couldn’t see Big Mike or Andrew because that danged ol’ camera was blocking me again. The mom in front of me tried one more time to get the daughters to put the signs up…AND THEY GOT NOTICED! “I can’t read those,” said Cory.

As Rihanna entertained us via the magic of Memorex, the safe Idols watched the big screen with their usual Children of the Corn-esque expressions. Tim was more entertained by mugging for the swaybots, and Casey was clearly consoling Lee. When Tim tried to draw the guys’ attention to something in the middle of the room, they ignored him, so Tim turned around to talk to the girls. Crystal mouthed, “I’m a rock star,” then did a little jig. I have never seen seven people under the age of 30 be less interested in anything pop culture-related (or played on a jumbotron at high volume) than those kids were in Rihanna’s number. When it ended, we clapped again. With our hands over our heads, of course, even though no one would ever see.

During this final commercial break, 7-year-old Max, inventor of the pencil-sharpener dance, got to come up on stage and hug Big Mike. Big Mike responded by lifting Max up by his ankle. Then Cory fell into the stage left pit. “I just wanted a hug,” he said to the tweenage girls on whom he landed. “He’s been drinking,” said Debbie.

When we returned to air, Lee started literally biting his nails. When Andrew was declared safe, Crystal and Tim were visibly shocked, and the boos started to rain down. “They’ll save him,” mouthed Lee, and when Big Mike hit the first note of his Maxwell cover, I knew our resident tortured soul was right. Most people were watching Big Mike’s performance, but Lee wasfocused squarely on the judges, his sad eyes burning a hole right through Kara’s rayon finery as she leaned both literally and metaphorically on Simon. I don’t know if Lee was feeling some crazy survivor’s guilt or if he’s considering cheating on Andrew with Big Mike, but that kid really wanted that save.

When Simon announced that Big Mike would live to sing another day, there was pandemonium. Kara hugged him like he’d just bought her a pony. (A pony named Glue, but still a pony!) Tim Urban’s dad threw both fists victoriously in the air. All these judges are getting picked up by their ankles later, I wrote. The Idoldome was awash in Quinton Aaron levels of joy. “Get your sign up!” yelled the mom. We went off the air. All the judges except for Simon headed for the stage. “Give it up for your judges for using The Save,” yelled Cory, and we did. Oh, how we did. We gave it up like people who knew they were witnessing the very best kind of history: The kind that reminds us of other history that was better because it was the first time, and we were so much more innocent then. Matt Giraud, I salute you.

What do you think, PopWatchers? Pleased with tonight’s course of events? And would you get your signs up already?