Image Credit: Frank Micelotta/Fox/PictureGroupOh, Idoldome, I missed you too. I wasn’t sure I would. As I headed toward American Idol‘s sound stage at Los Angeles’ CBS Television City, I was thinking about all the other places I’d rather be on this particular cold, rainy night. But my attempts to be depressed about attending another season of Idol were futile as soon as I stepped inside the sound stage, walked past the judges’ makeup chairs, and took my seat in the newly redesigned Idoldome. Franz Ferdinand’s “This Fire” was blasting out of the speakers, stagehands were running around making minor adjustments to the slick set and collecting gum from the audience members, and the guy sitting next to me had driven six hours from San Jose just to be here. And then I remembered Idol‘s appeal: It’s pretty darn cathartic to forget the rest of the world for a couple of hours, and hear talented young musicians belt out some catchy tunes. And, boy, can these boys do just that.

The Top 12 guys show was actually taped last Friday, Feb. 25, and throughout this recap, I’ll share some inside info about how what you saw on TV wasn’t always organic (or even the first take). But first, let’s address this new set. As I conveyed earlier this week, the Idoldome is much more intimate this season. The main audience seats have been pushed closer to the stage, which has been stripped of all those distracting monitors. Balcony sections have been added to both sides of the set, most notably behind the stage where the band used to sit. I can already tell that those audience members positioned behind the stage are going to be a source of amusement throughout the season because, stunningly, they cannot see the stage. With a kind heart, the Idol gods installed a large screen across the stage so that these folks can have some idea what’s going on. But on a couple of occasions, the TV wasn’t working, and these balcony members almost lost their minds. “Turn on the screen,” they’d yell, while the section’s self-appointed leaders started planning a coup d’état. Luckily, the screen did turn back on, and Idol averted a balcony-led revolution. At least for now.

I dug the new set, which appeared to be designed with the intention of keeping the focus on the singing. Whereas last year I felt like I was attending a music extravaganza determined to razzle-dazzle me in every possible way that it could, this year’s Idoldome seems content to support the performances, rather than overwhelm them. And, mercifully, the swaybot pits were removed and given to Justin Bieber as a 17th birthday present. Everyone on the floor had seats now, and while those folks were still welcome to demonstrate their inability to sway to a song’s rhythm, they were not required to. (Except for one instance, which we’ll get to later.)

Cory the Warm-Up Comic was replaced by Jay the Giver of Chipotle Certificates, while Debbie the Stage Manager scrambled around the set and informed us that they were running late. When this program is shot live, the Idol crew showcases miraculous efficiency. But when it’s taped, everyone moves at the approximate speed of Kirk Douglas presenting an Oscar. Jay tried to find the oldest person in the audience — a 79-year-old woman was awarded a t-shirt for her longevity — and then selected three young women for a “Single Ladies” dance-off. After that, Jay took advantage of the 360-degrees seating configuration and led all 700 of us in the first-ever Idol stadium wave.

Debbie brought the Top 12 guys out to shoot some “beauty shots.” Since the heights of the contestants were a key indicator of their vocal chops last season, I made some snap height judgments. To my eyes, James and Jordan were the tallest (hard to tell who’s got the edge due to James’ mighty mohawk), while Clint stood closest to the ground. It was endearing to see just how thrilled the guys were to be there. All the singers scanned the audience looking for their friends and families, and then joyously waved to them. Some audience members were whispering about Casey, who wasn’t initially onstage, and who had gone to the hospital earlier that week with abdominal pain. But Casey showed up a few minutes later and joined the rest of the guys in a line.

Debbie orchestrated a Steadicam shot in which the camera moved parallel to the lined-up singers, with each contestant turning his head toward the camera as it passed by. Debbie’s instructions were priceless: “Look at the camera, look at the camera, look at the camera… Jovany, that was LATE!” Then Debbie had the cameraman shoot each guy individually. They were supposed to stand straight and look serious, but Clint apparently seemed too happy. “Clint doesn’t know how to look serious,” chimed in exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, who had been aimlessly strolling around the set. Finally, Ryan Seacrest appeared onstage to film the “cold open” of the show — that’s when the audience is completely quiet as Seacrest explains the gravity of tonight’s competition. Seacrest introduced the judges, who entered center stage, and we were off!

The taped artificiality of this particular episode was apparent early. Seacrest brought out a “bleep sign” for Steven Tyler, who asked Seacrest how it worked. “It’s for in case we [bleep] something up,” Seacrest explained. On TV, Seacrest was bleeped, but the host didn’t really say the f-word. Instead, he simply said the letter “f.” But that was to be expected. What was really interesting to see, however, was how Idol portrayed the audience’s reaction to Tyler using the bleep sign. Right after Seacrest, Tyler used it (also with the letter “f” instead of the actual word), and the audience chuckled a bit. When the show finished taping hours later, Lythgoe told us that we had to re-shoot our reaction to Tyler’s “f-bomb.” So Lythgoe sat in Tyler’s chair — the judges had left by this point — and we all pretended to laugh again. Except, when you tell someone they have to laugh, they overdo it. And that’s exactly what you all saw at home — two seconds of the audience laughing hysterically because that’s what we were instructed to do.

Of course, it’s television — nobody actually thinks it’s real. But what was real was the night’s quality of singing, which compared to Season 9 was the equivalent of Mozart showing Salieri how it’s done. I’ll leave it to my wise colleague, Annie Barrett, to critique the performances in her recap. But I will say that these guys’ voices are dynamite (some more explosive than others), and that I actually found myself anticipating each new song. (Last year, every show was basically an endurance test until Crystal Bowersox appeared.)

Clint started things off with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and received a standing ovation, which would become a recurring trend throughout the evening. Another trend: During each commercial break, Lythgoe would talk to the judges. I don’t know if he was just chit-chatting or delivering advice or discussing the historical omissions of The King’s Speech, but it became clear that Lythgoe was going to make his producing presence known. And one other observation: The judges actually stayed seated during almost every commercial break. Last year, Simon Cowell would dart for the exit whenever he could, and Ellen DeGeneres, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson would usually follow him. But this year, the three judges were perfectly fine with staying seated and conversing among themselves.

Clint returned to the silver stools where the rest of the Top 12 were seated onstage (a noticeable change this season for the performance show), and everyone congratulated him via fist-bumps. Then Jovany sang “I’ll Be,” but what you saw on TV was actually the second time he performed it. Jovany did his initial performance, and that’s what the judges heard and critiqued. But, as Debbie explained, there was some sort of technical glitch with the Steadicam. So, at the end of the show, with no judges around, Jovany came back out and sang the entire song again. That arm-swaying you saw the audience doing? It didn’t happen the first time Jovany performed. But during the second attempt, Lythgoe cued the audience to start swaying, and we, being the obedient puppets we are, obliged him.

Jordan followed Jovany with Usher’s “OMG” — the only major misfire of the night. The judges shot down the performance, but part of Jordan’s response was edited out of the telecast. “It was offered to me, and I went along with it,” explained Jordan when the judges asked him why he selected the ill-suited song. To what extent the show’s producers forced Jordan to sing “OMG,” we’ll never really know. During the break, Lythgoe informed us that if we ever disagreed with the judges, it’s okay to let them know by booing. The audience interpreted this directive to mean that whenever a judge said anything negative, even if he or she happened to be correct, we should nevertheless bombard them with boos.

After that, there were only a few other behind-the-scene moments worth mentioning. One thing I noticed was that Casey wasn’t sitting with the other guys for the first half of the show, perhaps an indication that he was still feeling queasy. (Casey would later tell Seacrest that his “stomach wasn’t in the right place.”). Also, during the break before Robbie’s performance, it appeared as though Lythgoe signaled to someone to turn up the microphone’s volume. When Robbie began singing Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” his mic screeched. Debbie halted the song 20 seconds later, had a stagehand check the mic, and gave Robbie another shot at it. So was that malfunctioning mic just an accident? Or a covert operation orchestrated by Lythgoe to sabotage the 17-year-old’s Idol dreams? EW’s Lythgoe-Watch has been activated and will keep you updated on any other suspicious behavior.

On the Idoldome applause-o-meter, I’d say Scotty, Jacob, and Casey received the most love. Right before Casey stepped onstage to close the show with “I Put a Spell on You,” Lythgoe hugged the singer in a sweet moment. During the song, Tyler was clicking his Coke cup with his pencil, and Jennifer Lopez turned around, looked at the audience, and nodded with approval. Afterward, the other contestants walked onto the main stage and congratulated Casey, and when the show officially ended, they all started hugging one another.

The judges then stepped onstage to commend the contestants, but Debbie was in a hurry to set up another shot. “Will J.Lo’s hair please go backstage?” Debbie quipped. Lopez exited with husband Marc Anthony and their two kids, and Jovany walked onstage to get ready to sing the aforementioned redo of “I’ll Be.” “You ready for Round 2?” Jovany asked the audience. And even though they had been stuck in the Idoldome for the past three-and-a-half hours, the crowd was game. After all, there are worst places to be held captive than in the studio of the most-watched series on television.