Michael Becker/Fox
Annie Barrett
February 21, 2013 AT 08:26 AM EST

Welcome to Las Vegas, land of sudden death. We’re not quite live (performances were taped the night before), but there’s a sorely missed energy in the air and especially on the judges’ panel. I’m loving them! Ten performances in two hours allows for a LOT of “rawwwwwr talent”s from a lovesick Keith Urban, brutally honest missives from Señora Ladybug Nicki Minaj, surprisingly zesty complete sentences from Randy Jackson, and unbridled self-centered rambling from Mariah Carey.

Mariah was the biggest shock for me tonight — she’s been edited so carefully all season as the beta-diva to Minaj (the horror!) that it’s seemed like she’s had little to offer the contestants. And tonight she was at a disadvantage again, speaking fourth 10 times. Maybe I’ll change my mind as it becomes repetitive, but I rather enjoyed her long-winded attempts to make points, many of which were constructive vocal technique notes that could actually benefit the contestants. Nicki may be delivering all the sound bites, but Mariah knows her stuff and will get to the point if you stick around.

Anyway, I liked the vibe, I liked the new “sudden death” stakes, and I liked how the judges, especially Keith and Nicki, reacted with interest to all the relatively mundane stuff Ryan Seacrest said while hovering behind them. Remember when Steven Tyler would use this time to play Statues? These new judges are visibly alive!

Five of 10 women went home Wednesday; five of 10 men will get the boot Thursday. Next week, same thing. Five more girls and five more guys will advance to the Top 20, and then viewers will vote during the third and final Vegas Round week, on March 6.

So basically this is the producers’ crafty little way of arranging the Top 40 so that the ones they want can go through. It’s weird that last night’s ladies were competing against only half of the pack. But again, I like the new format. Let’s not overthink it.

I will admit to somewhat overthinking this dramatic new art installation, Stool Sample.

NEXT: The Bachelor‘s Tierra gets eliminated…again

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