Shirley Halperin
May 16, 2007 AT 06:42 PM EDT

Since I’ve taken a bit of a leave of absence, let me first say how nice it is to be back on the regular Idol PopWatch beat. No, Dancing with the Stars is not quite over yet (like Idol, there’s only one week left!), but I managed to squeeze both shows into one jam-packed Tuesday evening.

It all started at T minus 15 minutes when, lo and behold, a new, never-before-seen warm up guy takes the microphone. Johnny D. is his name and freebies — cash, candy, prizes — are his game. There’s nothing quite like a sugar rush to get a crowd going, and Johnny, who looks like Christopher Knight with an extra 30 or so pounds and wears a fanny-pack stuffed to the gills with Milky Ways and Three Musketeers, knows this better than anybody.

Besides chocolate, Johnny has a thing for Rihanna, as we learn when his playlist segues from “Pon de Replay” to “S.O.S.,” and, of course, bad jokes. He recycles his colleague Corey’s pager line (“If you have a cell phone, please turn it off. If you have a pager, get a cell phone, it’s 2007”) with no shame, but that has to be par for the course in the warm-up business.

With five minutes to air, Simon and Randy are shockingly on time for their big entrance. Randy comes first, making his way through the sea of high-fives. A minute later, you can spot Simon’s ridiculously bright teeth shining in the dark of the hallway. His choppers are exceptionally white, no doubt, but it’s also that ear-to-ear smile which practically gives off its own halo. Paula is the straggler on this night, arriving a minute and a half before the show’s open.

addCredit(“American Idol: Michael Becker”)

Perhaps because the show is winding down for the year, all threejudges were especially giddy and affectionate with each other. Randyand Simon hugged at the judge’s table and Simon dutifully scratchedPaula’s back through most of the opening segment. Ryan, meanwhile,tried his best to keep things professional.

Speaking of Mr. Seacrest, his intro mark was literally four feetaway from my seat so I got to see the perfectly landscaped scruff niceand close. (Side note: I almost mistook Scott Wolf, who was alsoseated nearby, for Ryan). Something else I noticed? Ryan smells reallygood. Then again, the guy is a proud metrosexual, so it should come asno surprise.

It’s show time. Ryan effortlessly delivers his opening line anddutifully makes his way back around to the gigantic splitting videoscreen. Since there were three performances by each of the contestants,everything was very much on a schedule, leaving little time for backand forth jabs but plenty of opportunity for praise. In that sense, theaudience was right there with the judges.

Like for Jordin’s first performance, Paula led the hand-clappingwhile the audience followed suit with a standing ovation. The same forBlake (“Roxanne” was Paula’s pick after all). In fact, pretty much allthe performers received standing O’s tonight and, through an informalsign count, it seemed fans really were split three ways. It’s anyone’sgame at this point.

But the folks seated next to me were all about Melinda who, justbefore taking her place on the Idol stage, embraced Blake, then neededhelp navigating the stairs wearing some very high and sharp heels.Paula, on the other hand, had no problem running in hers. On the firstcommercial break, she dashed back to her seat with three seconds tospare.

As Melinda’s hometown tape ran, Randy chuckled when the governor ofTennessee read his fax aloud, but during Melinda’s first performance,all the judges seemed very distracted and, dare I say, they even talkedthrough half of it. C’mon guys, not cool. From where we sat, you couldsee her straining to look beyond their chatter and focus on the upperseats. In the end, they did give Mindy Doo props, but where’s therespect?Meanwhile, Blake and Jordin are getting situated on the side of thestage. Jordin towers over Blake so he tries to stand tip-toed (it stilldoesn’t add much). But the little Blake that could lookssuper-confident and not at all fazed by this final three showdown.Maybe it was Maroon 5’s “This Love,” which turned out to be a great fitfor his voice and style (the band will be appearing on Wednesday’sshow) or knowing what it felt like to be in the bottom two, but Blakebrought it, and the crowd definitely responded. Even Ryan gave him acongratulatory handshake and slap on the back.

Jordin (pictured), on the other hand, looked at bit more jumpy and nervous thanin weeks past. Ryan walked her through the viewer question during thecommercial break and, though it only required her to say Hanson’s “MMMBop,” it seemed to take a lot longer to prep. Again, I think the shoeswere a deterrent, as Jordin also struggled with her heels, though theywere highly appropriate for the song (“She Works Hard for the Money”).

Melinda got some last minute hair fixes (courtesy of official Idolhairstylist Dean Banowitz) before she closed out the show. Sitting onthe awkward silver stool (you know those things can’t be comfortable),she was smiley, chatty and, as always, poised. The room, naturally,exploded as soon as she hit her first note, with Paula againdemonstrating her trademark dolphin clap (perfected by Amy Poehler onlast week’s SNL, don’t you think?). And with a group hug(contestants, not judges this time), it was all over, leaving theaudience just as confused filing out as they were walking in.

But there was one person who looked like he wasn’t going to lose anysleep tonight: good ol’ Blake. I saw him walking through the parkinglot about a half hour after show’s end with a security guard, stoppingevery few feet to pose for photos with fans. Caption it the picture ofcool.

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