Adam B. Vary
March 12, 2010 AT 01:00 PM EST

You know things are bad indeed when Simon Cowell buries his head in his hands. The moment Ryan asked Andrew Garcia and Alex Lambert to step up into the American Idol semi-finals center ring of doom, Simon’s face just disappeared into his palms, and he stayed that way until Ryan asked him if Andrew had peaked too soon. It was maybe the most outwardly emotional I’ve ever seen Simon since I’ve covered this show, on what was definitely the most emotional Idol I’ve ever witnessed first hand. I think that photo of a crestfallen Crystal Bowersox says it all, really — in fact, I kinda worry that last night’s events may have broken something in the Idol frontrunner that will not be easily mended. Sniff. Even my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin was a touch misty.

It was a disconcerting night right from the beginning, actually, when with 19 minutes to go before air time, a mysterious voice came over the speakers, saying with the same conviction with which one might order a deli sandwich, “If you’re here to have some fun, make some noise, people.” Four minutes later, the voice returned, connected to a warm up guy who was decidedly not Cory. Instead of getting everyone up on their feet and picking audience members out to shake that booty, this new dude (who Debbie the Stage Manager eventually informed me was named Jay, and would be filling in for Cory again next week) told the crowd in downy tones to be mindful of hiding their purses, jackets, and flyaway hairs from the camera. He asked the audience, “Are you guys excited?!” like he was the host of Blues Clues talking to a crowd of sleepy preschoolers, and he pulled up a woman from the audience named Brandy from Costa Mesa to sing, of all things, Beyoncé’s “Flaws and All.” (Sample lyric: “I’m a train wreck in the morning/ I’m a bitch in the afternoon.” Sunny!) It is a uniquely strange day when one begins to appreciate the particular talents of Cory the Warm Up Comic.

With three minutes to go, Kara thankfully commandeered Jay’s mic to try her hand once more at introducing Randy, this time making sure first that she “can see the Dawg” before she led the audience in a chant of “Rannn-dy! Jaaaack-son!” Randy obliged. Jay brought out Ellen, then Ryan, then Simon. And with 50 seconds before air time, the judges huddled together for maybe the most awkward “Go team!” pep talk ever in the history of nationally televised reality competition programs. The show began, Kara laughed about the clip of her crying Wednesday night, and, oh, sweet baby jeebus, that’s right, we’ve got a group performance to endure watch, don’t we?

I can safely report that these things are no less cringerific in person than on TV. I’m not sure what was more dismaying: That these poor kids are forced to lip-sync along with the song even when they are obviously not on camera; that at one point I caught Mama Bowersox unironically bopping her head to the music while not on camera; or that at the end, Katie Stevens and Aaron Kelly maniacally laughed like they were featured players in a cheesy 1950s musical (which, come to think of it, they kinda are).

At the ad break, Debbie herded the men upstairs to the Coke Rumpus Room and the women onto the industrial-scotch-guarded-just-in-case-our-hour-long-torture-of-Katie-Stevens-reduces-her-into-a-human-puddle velvet benches. Randy walked over to talk with Simon, while Ellen and Kara exchanged the occasional word but otherwise sat in silence. Debbie quickly told the girls how they should file into the silver stools of safety, and we were back. Didi was safe, and the judges were particularly happy, waving and smiling at her as she walked to her stool. Siobhan was safe, and only Ellen smiled at her as she walked to her stool. And then the evening began to crack apart, when Paige “My Only Distinctive Feature Thus Far Are My Green Contacts” Miles made it to the Top 12 over Katelyn “If Only I Hadn’t Played On That Effing Corny Keyboard” Epperly. As Katelyn sang her swan song, the family members for the next round of results filed onto one side of the backstage stairs to the Coke Vestibule.

Ryan took us out to the ad break, and Katelyn just about collapsed into Lilly Scott’s arms, or maybe that was the other way around. Crystal looked like someone had just stolen her puppy as a practical joke. The judges all came down to talk with Katelyn, and Didi, Siobhan, and Paige quietly talked among themselves.

We came back from the break, and Ryan lined up Tim, Todrick, Lee, and Casey. Casey was safe, causing Kara smiled at Simon, followed by Tim “Gives Me Serious Hair Envy” Urban and, in the only no-brainer pairing of the night, Lee Dewyze over Todrick Hall. Ah, Todrick, who likely managed to find his voice one week too late. Like so many farewell performances, the guy slayed his second attempt at “Somebody to Love,” and Ellen was the first to stand when he’d finished, followed by Randy and then Kara. (Simon, you may have noticed, did not stand.) During the ad break, Paige and Todrick managed to share a warm hug before the crew cleared the stage to wheel in the dueling pianos for Idol alums #IWouldSaySignMattGiraudIfHeWasn’tSuchACheeseballLastNight and Scott MacIntyre. Now, I could be crazy, but as Ryan talked with Andrew up in the Coke Panic Room, I could’ve sworn that someone in the audience waved at Scotty M., and Scotty M. waved hello back. (Just reporting what happens in front of me, folks.) Anyhoots, Scott and Matt told her about it, the judges were politely attentive, and Siobhan looked a bit lost.

As the crew wheeled the pianos back off the stage during the ad break, the judges gathered around the half-dozen safe contestants for a friendly visit with Matt and Scott. Once the stage was clear, the judges returned to their seats — or, rather, Simon returned to his seat, and the rest of the judges gathered around him and Ryan perched up on the table. For a second, I thought I detected a thought bubble above Ellen’s head reading, “Just wait, he’ll be gone next year, just wait, he’ll be gone next year.” As we came back from the break, Debbie took the opportunity to say to the safe contestants, “Those are the most uncomfortable stools you’ll ever sit on, those silver stools.” A few minutes later, Michael Lynche surprised Ryan by stepping center stage, and Debbie cackled with delight at the confusion.

It would be the last real moment of levity all night, because right after Michael and Aaron were sent to safety, Ryan brutally mauled a puppy right in front of the entire nation. No joke, watching Alex Lambert’s spirit crumple into nothingness in real time was one of the saddest things ever. It truly did bring the entire studio to a dead silent stop during the ad break as the contestants and judges swarmed the stage to console the poor kid. Siobhan and Alex shared a long, woebegone hug, and then Ellen, Kara, and Randy all gathered around him. Simon hung back, choosing to eavesdrop for a moment on Crystal, Lilly, and Katelyn’s conversation before taking his own one-on-one time with Alex. Curiously, Casey James was back on his stool almost as soon as he’d left it, quickly followed by Tim Urban and Didi Benami. Simon eventually sauntered back to his seat, too, but the rest of the contestants and judges were so preoccupied with their carousel of consolation and tears that either no one noticed the ad break countdown clock, or no one cared about it. Suddenly, we were on live TV again, and as you saw, things were decidedly not back in show-ready order, a truly unscripted moment and, I felt, an uncommonly graceful one for American Idol.

It would have been heart-rending enough with Katelyn, Todrick, and Alex going home, but then Ryan announced that Lilly Scott’s distinctive, clear-haired stylings had lost to Katie Stevens’s robotic teenage competence, and it was just too much for some of the contestants to bear — especially Crystal and Siobhan. Maybe it has to do with the fact that by all appearances, both women have barely watched past seasons of Idol, and aren’t well versed in the particularly cruel nature and staging of the eliminations. Or maybe it’s because they were far closer with the eliminated contestants than the ones who’ve lived to warble another day. Regardless of the reason, both women simply could not stop crying, even as Debbie gathered them for their first official photo shoot as the Idol Top 12. “Makeup!” exclaimed Debbie. “We need some kleenex for a pretty picture. Bad time to take one.” Siobhan more-or-less pulled it together after some hug love from Tim and Didi, but Crystal was still sobbing into Lee Dewyze’s shoulder as the photographer began taking light readings. “Happiest you can be, guys,” Debbie said somberly. Crystal could only manage to wanly tighten her lips.

I stood up from my seat to leave, and saw Ellen giving yet one more pep talk to Alex, both of her hands on his slumped shoulders, the kid barely able to lift his head up to meet her gaze. At this point, Smirkelstiltskin clapped his hands, squeaked “I’m out,” and disappeared in a puff of damp sulfur, so he missed Ellen walking out a few steps behind me out of Stage 36, her eyes wet, as a camera crew from her talk show attempted to capture the newest Idol judge’s first impressions of the show. She could not find the words.

So yeah, that was one rough night. And y’all have a lot to say about it, judging from the fact that, as I wrap up writing the final entry of EW’s exclusive look inside the Idol semi-finals, Slezak’s post-results show Popwatch item has already logged over 1,000 comments in less than 6 hours. So have at it: Were you teary watching last night’s results? Do you think Crystal, Siobhan, et. al. can bounce back from the disillusioning trauma of watching a small cabal of mega-texting tweenagers “America” obliterate the Idol dreams of singers as promising as Alex, Lilly, Katelyn, and Todrick? And who among the Top 12 do you think will be able to handle the abrupt transition from the intimate Idolcupola to the behemoth Idoldome?

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