Performance night opens with a jubilant Ryan Seacrest in a three-piece suit, dramatically lit — just the way he likes it. From there, we get to trip down Idol memory lane. The producers — never passing up a chance to roll the freak reel — tell us that Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks both auditioned in Seattle. We get the back stories: A friend coaxed Lewis to audition, and Sparks missed her driver's license exam.

The judges get their perfunctory introductions. But this time it's actually interesting because we're eager to see how screwed up Paula Abdul is after news this week that she took a tumble over her fat dog.

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Randy Jackson is shown first; sporting military fringe, he looks as though he went into another Jackson's closet to get dressed tonight. Abdul is very swollen but, sadly for us, is not so heavily medicated that she's lost touch with reality. Cowell desperately wants America to see his chest hair and does his best to rile up Abdul.

The coin toss for the performance order is held. Lewis wins and decides to go first. Seacrest explains that the contestants will sing three songs: one they have already performed, a new song of their choosing and the final song — the dreaded pre-fab Idol shlock number. This time around, it was the product of a contest.

Lewis opens with "You Give Love a Bad Name," which made a huge splash during Bon Jovi week. Blake — his black mop now evolved into serious skunk hair — doesn't veer much from the original Idol performance. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is the rationale. The two judges — I won't really bother to recap Abdul — are nonplussed by the singing but dig the performance.

For Sparks’ new song choice, she selects Christina Aguilera’s "Fighter." Eschewing the prom-tent apparel of weeks past, she looks good but struggles to break through the production elements of the song. The song choice is a perilous one; though it has power, range and a great chorus (all Idol essentials), the studio antics of the original make a live version seem less than. Abdul’s up on her feet and all aboard the praise train, but the sane ones aren’t impressed. Cowell calls round one to Lewis.

Seated on the sensitivity stool, Lewis launches into his second song — his new one for the night — Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved." He looks comfortable and strolls the catwalk/audience pit like a pro. He makes a smart, if obvious, choice with the song selection: maximum performance payoff with minimum singing difficulty. Lewis' devious plan works like a charm on Jackson and Abdul, but Cowell isn't drinking the Kool-Aid. He correctly observes that it was safe choice.

Next it's Sparks' turn to dive into the recycling bin with Martina McBride's "A Broken Wing." She nailed that song during country week and repeats the slam dunk here. With the show moving like a freight train and running low on time, the judges roundly agree it was great but don't elaborate.

Seacrest drags out Scott Krippayne and Jeff Peabody, the winners of the songwriting contest. They're from Seattle, too — must be something in the coffee. The Los Angeles Times has more on the duo.

Back to the show. Lewis is in the Idol monitor! (Can he do that?) He’s wearing gold shoes and gold argyle! He means business. Too bad this song doesn’t. It’s better than the other wretched pre-fab Idol songs. But if he’s going head-to-head against Sparks with this inspirational fluff, he’s done for. He gives it the good try, but he knows the deck is stacked against him. The judges are lukewarm. Cowell at least points out the raw deal Lewis got and decides he’ll judge him on the first two songs alone. Lewis better hope America does the same.

OK. It's all over now. Sparks is on stage, and she looks great. The cheesy song fits her like a glove, and she knows it. She starts slow but hits it out of the park at the end. As the song winds down, she chokes up on cue. Camera pans to loving family. And the title crown is all but a formality.

"You just wiped the floor with Blake on that song," Cowell says in closing.

Posted by Tim Swift

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