By Adam B. Vary
Updated March 02, 2012 at 10:10 AM EST
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Since American Idol‘s sixth season, my comrades-in-arms and I have called Studio 36 at CBS Television City “the Idoldome.” We meant the name both in the sense that the set felt like a futuristic, dome-like edifice of televised excess, and that by Idol‘s very nature, the set was home to a Thunderdome-esque bloodbath of youth, hope, ambition, and dreams. Each successive new Idol set has felt bigger, brighter, more Idoldome-y, to the point where last year’s set was quite literally an arena surrounded on all sides by a well-dressed throng ravenous forbig-voiced high notes, a wave from Jennifer Lopez, and/or the sweet sweet tears of yet another victim kicked-off contestant.

But when I saw Idol‘s first live show on Tuesday night, the new set felt, like so much of season 11, just… off. It wasn’t until I stepped inside Studio 36 for Thursday night’s results show that I realized why: This new set is not the “Idoldome.” The snazzy curlicue runway and the corresponding swoopy embelishments on the ceiling pull the eye away from the center of the stage, not towards it. Instead of the shifting abstract shapes that would play on the TV monitors of Idol yore, the screens that surround the stage now feature soothing fields of undulating tall grass, or burbling champagne bubbles. And in person, watching that oval-shaped jumbo-screen restlessly divide and twist itself on a whim is totally adorable. Everything just feels more airy and open, less crowded and distracting. This is not an arena designed to serve up wannabe superstars for the public to devour and spit out. This is a stage that tries to get out of the way of whoever is performing on it whenever possible. It could easily work as the set of a slightly ostentatious late night talk show, not what amounts to pop-culture’s first step on the long road to the Hunger Games. It’s not the Idoldome. It’s the Idollounge.

This difference was no more acute than when Jen Hirsh, Jeremy Rosado, Brielle Von Hugel, DeAndre Brackensick, Erika Van Pelt, and Reed Grimm were called one by one to sing for a wild card spot on the show. Last year, in the Idoldome, these wildcard performances and the judges’ final choices for who to send through took on a rather hysterical energy. The singers seemed overwhelmed, the judges seemed frazzled, and the audience seemed maybe just a bit unhinged. This year, all that manic energy felt far more dialed down, and the result meant we could focus that much more on the contestants themselves. Or, at least, I felt much more dialed into Jeremy’s earnestness, Brielle’s desperate entitlement, and DeAndre’s hair.

My increasingly odd fixation on the new set may have been my biggest take-away from my time inside the Idollounge on Thursday night, but it was by no means the only one. There were oodles of fun/silly/sad behind-the-scenery to be had, from Heejun’s adorable bromance with Phil×2 to DeAndre’s gospel wave, from the swaypit’s boosterism for Eben Franckewitz to Skylar Laine’s inability to throw a small ball farther than five feet. Let us count the ways:

Swaybot recruitment Soon after I took my seat, a PA approached the two cute teenage boys sitting next to me and asked them to stand. So they did. Then she looked off into the middle distance, listening to some unseen Idol overlord through her headset. Then she indicated an empty spot in the far left nook of the swaypit and asked the boys if they’d like to move there. Being cute and teenage and boys, they looked at each other, shrugged, and said “why not.” And they were never seen again.

That man is proud of his caboose For as long as I’ve been covering Idol, Cory the Warm Up Guy has been pulling grown-ass men onto the stage to swing their hips and shake their keister to the audience’s delight. But I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a grown-ass man shake his keister with quite the same unabashed gusto as Phil Phillips, Sr.

Ryan’s audience plea Usually, the job of instructing the Idollounge on when and how loud to cheer — i.e. always, and fortissimo — has been left to Cory the Warm Up Guy. But about two minutes before the show began on Thursday, host Ryan Seacrest took to the stage to implore the audience to be forceful in how they expressed their feelings about the evening’s results. “We look for you for that energy,” he said with not much energy. As Ryan left the stage, he passed through the space between the guys’ and girls’ benches, and raised his hands for what I can only describe as an “air fist bump.”

So you think you can dance? Well, please don’t. In the first ad break, someone called out to Cory that he was excited to see Idol exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, who was perched as per usual in front of the judges’ table. This audience member explained he was planning on auditioning for Nigel’s other show, So You Think You Can Dance, this weekend in Los Angeles. Cory suggested this gentleman get on the stage and do his audition right then and there, but Nigel’s expression — let’s call it “befuddled contempt” — made it clear that would not be happening.

EBEN! EBEN! EBEN! Throughout the night, an acutely vocal portion of the audience made it clear they expected to see the kewpie Bieber-esque 15-year-old Eben Franckewitz in the Top 13. Early on, one girl named Serena demanded Cory bring Eben over to her, confessing she’d voted all night for him. A row of four tween girls sitting near me spent every ad break repeatedly screaming his name in an attempt to get him to wave in their direction. (I’m not sure if he ever did, but I am sure that these girls never stopped screaming Eben’s name.) And during the first ad break before the wild card performances began, Cory polled the audience for who they most wanted to see sing again. Eben won by an ear-splitingly wide margin. So when Eben wasn’t called up to bleat another too-mature song for his tender pipes, I girded myself for a full scale revolt that never materialized. Fame, she is indeed a fickle vixen.

Deliberate deliberations Ryan wasn’t kidding when he said he heard the judges talking over their wild card picks during the ad break following Phil, Hollie, and Jessica’s placement in the Top 10. They each had a sheet with all 25 contestants’ photos, and J.Lo and Randy especially would return to it at least once each ad break while their hair and make-up teams attended to them, and Nigel and various Fox execs chatted them up. Strangely, though, in the final ad break before the judges announced their final wild cards, they didn’t appear to deliberate at all. Which leads to my theory that by the time they selected Reed Grimm to sing, they already knew who they wanted to send through, and so they just wanted to see Reed undulate and scat while wearing unusually tight pants one more time.

Heejun + Phil×2 = Adorable Like James & Stefano, Kris & Adam, and Blake & Chris before them, this season’s bromance is easily and obviously Heejun Han and Phil Phillips. When Heejun made it into the Top 10, he made a beeline straight for Phil×2. They hugged, and Heejun patted Phil×2 on the butt. This kind of playful physicality continued throughout the rest of the show straight on through to the Top 13 party, where the two were inseparable as they first arrived on the arrivals line. This isn’t to say the duo did this to the exclusion of their fellow contestants. Phil×2 was the first person to hug the six prospective wild cards. Heejun, meanwhile, leaned on Joshua Ledet’s shoulder as more contestants learned their fate, and at the Top 13 party, he began sorta fish kissing Shannon Magrane’s shoulder during the group photos. She did not appear to mind.

“I can shoot. I can’t throw.” As my colleague John Young observed during Wednesday’s show, Cory’s swag of choice this season are bouncy balls with blinking lights inside. During one ad break, he handed one to Skylar to throw deep into the audience. Instead, she slammed it more-or-less straight down into the sway pit not five feet away from her. “I can shoot,” she told Cory. “I can’t throw.” (Which is comforting, given that in her mini-bio just sent out by Fox, Skyler tells us “I have a small collection of knives.”)

DeAndre’s gospel wave It was heartening to see so many of both the Top 10 and the Bottom 15 so passionately focused on the prospective wild card performances. By far my favorite reaction had to be DeAndre’s gospel wave. Whenever someone hit a big high note or took their song to the next level, DeAndre would raise his hand in the air, and then turn his wrist from side to side like he was Queen Elizabeth on parade.

But can he legbomb? Since he’s from a suburb of Tampa, Fla., it stands to reason that Jeremy Rosado may be a Florida Gators fan, the college team of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. In entirely unrelated news, in the ad break after he sang his wild card song, Jeremy dropped to one knee and closed his eyes in prayer.

That inner black woman is not happy It was fascinating and sad to watch the rejected contestants sitting on the left-hand set of couches slump further and further into their seats as the night progressed. But the one who took the end of his Idol journey the hardest was by far Adam Brock. The poor new papa collapsed into wracking sobs in the penultimate ad break, before the judges chose Reed Grimm to perform. Phil×2, Heejun, and Colton all took turns trying to console him, to no avail. Adam remained crumpled and clutching his tissues from that moment until the show was over and he walked off the Idollounge stage for almost certainly the final time.

And on that cheery note, those were my highlights from inside Thursday night’s Idol. What were yours at home?

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