By Grady Smith
February 17, 2012 at 05:55 PM EST

Last night’s Las Vegas episode of American Idol was easily the most entertaining one of this season, right? For the first time in the last six weeks, I’m legitimately excited about this season’s crop of contestants!

While season 11’s audition rounds felt sloppy and unremarkable — and featured almost no judging! — and Hollywood Week focused much more on group drama than vocal ability, last night’s two-hour show, which winnowed the group down from 70 contestants to just 42, struck a much-needed balance of rehearsal footage, singing, judging, and heartbreaking cuts.

After two days of glitzy, Elvis-inspired group numbers, only a few hopefuls had been sent packing, so the judges corralled the remaining contestants and issued another round of cuts. Front-runners like Johnny Keyser and Schyler Dixon (who I say has more star power than her brother Colton) were suddenly sent home. It was heartbreaking to watch the hopefuls go from excitement to dread in a few short moments.

But that drama made American Idol compelling. All season long, The Voice‘s splashy chair-spinning drama has been earning headlines and encouraging chatter that The Voice has become the superior must-watch singing competition, but Idol proved last night that it still knows how to put on a show. The costumed performances felt polished and sounded great. Heejun Han and vocal coach Peggy (“Are you on Ritalin?!”) brought some laughs. And the final round of cuts, while brutal, imbued the show with some classic showbiz drama — dreams were at stake! Plus, it didn’t feel at all like a gimmick. The truth is, a whole bunch of singers boasted impressive vocals last night — Elise Testone, Joshua Ledet, and Jen Hirsch to name a few — and cuts needed to be made. (Especially the Cowboy, Richie Law, who somehow survived! Seriously, HOW?)

That being said, I was sad and surprised to see Keyser and Dixon head out the door. Both had a sort of raw, unrehearsed potential that could have blossomed on the Idol stage. I would have happily sent 15-year-old prototype Eben Franckewitz, gyrating and grating Reed Grimm, Creighton “I MUST SCREAM EVERYTHING” Fraker, or the aforementioned Cowboy packing first. Still, there are 42 contestants left, and there’s ample time for me to get attached to new singers — only to feel terrible all over again when they’re eliminated. (Kendra Chantelle, you will be avenged!) It’s a weird part of the Idol experience to keep coming back for, but I just love the roller-coaster ride!

What about you? Who were you sad to see get booted last night? And did you think last night’s American Idol was a major step up from the rest of this season?

Follow @EWGradySmith

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