Credit: Fox

Hello, Idoldome. Hello, John. This is the third season of American Idol that I’ve covered in person, and by now the Idoldome — EW’s nickname for the Idol studio at L.A.’s CBS Television City — is sort of like a second home to me. Except my second home has gone and remodeled itself. The most noticeable difference between last year’s set and Idoldome 2012 is the size of the audience, which has been cut roughly in half. As a result, the noise level has been reduced from “airplane taking off” to “Gilbert Gottfried.”

The stage itself is larger, with tentacle-like walkways protruding into the audience. There are also Burtonesque spirals on the ceiling, though they appear to be an afterthought in terms of the show’s overall design scheme. What isn’t an afterthought is the addition of cubes, cubes, and more cubes. Both sides of the stage now feature giant video-screen blocks that display various looping footage throughout the show. When I first entered the Idoldome yesterday, these screens were all orange, and I felt as if I had somehow become trapped inside the world’s largest, all-orange Rubik’s Cube. But I quickly grew to accept the cubes. They may be Idol‘s attempt to add a bit more razzle-dazzle to the set, à la The X Factor, but they aren’t so overwhelming that they distract from the performances.

But enough about the set. It gets the job done, even if its components may one day be used to rebuild the Aggro Crag in a revival of Nickelodeon GUTS. Last night was all about the Top 12 Girls, who easily surpassed what the Guys delivered on Tuesday. Here are some things that you didn’t see on TV:

All About Reed: The person I had the most fun watching throughout the show was Reed, who was standing with the rest of the Top 13 Guys in that tentacle-shaped gap between the stage and the judges’ table. On Tuesday night, you may have noticed Reed’s exuberant personality, particularly while he played the drums. Well, Reed is that happy all… the… time.

Case in point: Reed enjoyed Cory the Warm-Up Guy’s pre-show routine. Granted, most of the Top 13 Guys followed Cory’s instructions to sway to the left, now sway to your right, now shout your name on the count of three — YOU DIDN’T WAIT UNTIL I SAID THREE! They’re new to the Idoldome. They don’t know yet that Cory has repeated the exact same warm-up routine more times than The Lord of the Rings has aired on TNT. They’ll soon learn.

But my point is that, of all the guys, Reed was digging the Idol experience the most, and not just during Cory’s spiel. He was shouting, dancing, and clapping throughout the show, and to a degree I’ve never seen from a contestant. I hope Reed stays around, if only so I can see his reaction when a celebrity singer takes the stage. He may very well spontaneously combust.

Monsieur Masseur: Speaking of Reed, on two occasions I noticed him giving Heejun a backrub. Heejun didn’t seem to mind.

Tranquil Idoldome: Before the show started, Cory informed the audience that Fox needed to “test the network feed on the east coast.” This meant that the entire audience had to be quiet and remain still for about a minute. In all my visits to the Idoldome, this has never happened before, but it was pure bliss. The studio became silent. The video screens were playing Terrence Malick-y footage of grass blowing in the wind. I was at peace. Then Cory resumed speaking.

Seacrest, out. The night’s first singer, Chelsea, made the rookie mistake of thinking she was supposed to exit the stage with Ryan Seacrest. It’s a cardinal rule that no one is allowed to know what Seacrest actually does during commercial breaks, so a stagehand intercepted Chelsea and directed her toward the appropriate exit.

Everlasting Gobstopper: As far as I could tell, Phillip Phillips chewed the same piece of gum throughout the entire show. Just saying.

Applause for Randy? After Jennifer Hirsh’s rendition of Adele’s “One and Only,” Randy mentioned that the judges may have been too lenient when the Top 13 Guys performed. Of course the judges were way, way, way too kind to the guys on Tuesday night, but Randy’s confession was at least a step in the right direction. And for that, a number of people in the audience applauded him. Now, this is progress. Usually the Idoldome is all about cheering positive comments and booing the rare negative critique. But here Randy was essentially saying “we judges could be meaner,” and the crowd clapped! Here’s hoping the judges take a hint and actually deliver constructive criticism this season.

How to meet Steven Tyler: Bring a copy of Tyler’s memoir Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? One girl did, and Cory brought the girl down to have Tyler autograph the book. One woman in the audience yelled, “I wish I had a book!” Tyler looked at her and responded, “You have to go buy one!”

Audience prizes: Two seasons ago, Cory gave away iPods during the commercial breaks. Last year, select audience members received certificates to Chipotle. And last night, Cory threw toy bouncy-balls into the audience. I’m already looking forward to next year’s prize: Styrofoam plates!

Heejun the kidnapper: During one break, Cory was interviewing a 9-year-old boy in the audience. The boy revealed that his favorite Season 11 singer was Heejun. Cory proceeded to bring the boy down to meet Heejun, who gave the kid a big hug. Cue “awwws” from the audience. Then Heejun picked the boy up and started running away with him. Of course it was all a joke, and Heejun quickly stopped and put the kid back down. Either that or Heejun discovered that 9-year-old kids weigh a lot more than he initially thought.

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