WE’VE GONE THROUGH two rounds of cuts in Hollywood: the solo performances, during which contestants are usually bopped in a rapid-fire, whack-a-mole style, and group day, during which many Idolites succumb to pressure and occasional fits of cannibalism.

I’m not pointing any fingers … just don’t ever get David Archuleta angry is all.

But this season, an astounding 71 of the 96 wannabes who made it to Hollywood are still standing two rounds of cuts hence.

So not only must this week’s eliminations be a bloodbath — we’ve got to get down to the magic number of 24, friends — but Tuesday’s episode is a two-hour opportunity to allow our little dreamers to twist in the wind while decisions are being made about their future on primetime television.

And twist they do. As is typical at this point in the competition, the contestants are separated into different holding rooms so that entire rooms of Idolites can be OK’d or axed all at once. One of these years, the floor will drop out and the losers will be devoured by lions. But that hasn’t happened yet.

As has also happened in the past, the “Idol” producers choose to tell this story in a meandering series of flashbacks, so that they can milk each contestant’s fear for all it’s worth.

Here Joe Contestant is stewing in his own juices in Holding Pen A. Oh, and here he is singing for a sec, whatever. And now back to him in Holding Pen A. Look at the sweat around his temples. How his lower lip quivers just so. How with every passing moment, he seems just a little more dead inside. Enjoy, America.

Now, let’s talk performances, which we are only able to see in frustrating little snippets.

» Jermaine Purifory: He does a slightly more R. Kelly version of “Brick House,” to the obvious delight of Randy, Kara and Ellen.
» Casey James: You know, I didn’t think much of him after his forced-striptease first audition, but Casey’s proving himself to be more of a contender than I ever would have thought. Although the Colbie Caillat song he sings, “Bubbly” has been played to death in my opinion, he still does a nice job with it.
» Siobhan Magnus: Her performance shows off a formidable range — it’s the first time in the competition that she’s caught my attention enough to learn her name. Her Punky Brewster wardrobe is also eye-catching, but not in a good way. Keep that up and I’ll be forced to haul out my George Gaynes impression, and nobody wants that.
» Crystal Bowersox: Her version of Sheryl Crow‘s “If it Makes You Happy” couldn’t be crunchier if her guitar were constructed completely of granola, but it’s eminently listenable.
» Todrick Hall: I’m bored with Jason Mraz‘s “I’m Yours,” (I mean, can you get more trite than a lyric like “Open up your pants and damn, you’re free?” Woo! Pants opening!) but Todrick dishes out some funky stuff that makes even that tired tune shine. That’s a minor miracle there.
» Ashley Rodriguez: She barrages Jordin Sparks‘ “Battlefield” with confidence and a little bit of the sexy.
» Lee Dewyze: The Fray is a perfect catalogue for him to explore — he’s definitely got a voice made for alterna-rock. And radio-friendly alterna-rock at that.
» Andrew Garcia: He sounds like a major recording artist already. He’s absolutely ready for prime time.

» Jermaine Sellers: He turns in what sounds like a solid take on “Man in the Mirror,” but then dogs the band for apparently goofing up the arrangement. Like they don’t have 70 other songs to play in addition to his. Smooth.
» Alex Lambert: “I didn’t think I was going to make it past groups at all,” he tells the camera. I didn’t either. And his attempt at Jason Mraz‘s “I’m Yours” shouldn’t have been enough to save him a second time….

» Mary Powers: I could just be recoiling at her ego, but Mary’s song choice bothers me. She tells Seacrest the song she’s singing, Katy Perry‘s “Hot N Cold” is “cake” — and for her it is. Which makes me wish she’d have challenged herself a little with a song that’s not just a breathless lyrical torrent, but one that would have given her a chance to show off her vocal power. Who tries out for Major League Baseball by hitting off a tee?
» Hope Johnson: Singing Daughtry‘s “Home” usually means tempting Simon‘s well-honed thirst for irony. And Hope doesn’t sing it anywhere near well enough to escape the consequences.

… and superlatives.

“Seventy-one lives are on the line, all trying to attain the same end: becoming the next American Idol.”
Except not really, since “lives on the line” tends to connote that the lives in question could, y’know, end if the desired outcome isn’t reached. And as much as Sir Blubbers-a-Lot and Our Lady of the Running Makeup want us to believe they’ll simply die if they don’t reach the Top 24, they won’t. Really. Honest.

Aaron Kelly‘s pause as he sings Sarah McLachlan‘s “Angel.” He salvages the song afterward and sings it with a lot of heart. But his mistake is one of Simon’s pet peeves. It certainly doesn’t help his case.

The “Idol” producers unfurl the tension-heightening Results Theme Music for the first time this season as they march the judges, led by Ellen, into Room 1 — the room so chock-full of singers the judges love that their fate is a foregone conclusion. Of course, the poor contestants don’t know that, and Ellen brings her 12-Emmy-Award-winning chops to bear as she hems and haws and tries to sound nervous. She keeps them on pins and needles for about 20 miserable seconds before finally letting them know they’re advancing.

And how much must it suck to hear Room 1 erupt in cheers when you’re sitting in Room 2 or 3? A lot.

The next victims are the unsuspecting souls in Room 2. And Simon lets them dangle for a bit before lowering the boom: They’re out. Which means saying so long to Mary Powers, Hope Johnson and more than a dozen others.

This doesn’t, of course, mean the judges won’t futz with Room 3. And they do. Kara addresses them sotto voce and with a hang-dog face. Then, Randy blabbers on about the level of talent this year and only so many open slots and yadda yadda yadda. Which, now that we know they’re going through seems just plain mean.

They get the good news. They cheer. But for some, the joy is short-lived. From 46, the group must be pared to 24. And pared it shall be.

For the past few seasons, this final winnowing of the Hollywood crowd has taken place in the kind of magnificent vista you can only find in the ritziest areas of places like California, or in my cabin-fever-induced dreams. This year, though, “Idol” has spared some expense, I guess, and decided to just shoot ’em where they stand: the top 24 will be revealed in the Kodak Theatre, where Hollywood Week has been held.

The “painfully long walk” part of the experience, as Seacrest lovingly terms it, is mandatory — and, of course, it’s staying. Because what is watching someone’s hopes get dashed if you don’t get a chance to see them nervously twitch — again — beforehand? It’s like quartering without drawing. Borrrrring.

So we’re treated to 45 minutes of theater for what could actually be conveyed to us in a leisurely five. How’d it go down? Back to superlatives we go:

The Jessica Furney incident. Never that I can remember have we seen a contestant fight a no at this particular level, usually because it’s really clear that the judges’ decisions are set in stone.

In her spirited defense of herself, Jessica makes two repeated points: 1) The judges have no idea, and 2) She’s got it in her. Whatever “it” is.

Or, more fully: “No, please. Guys, I have so much, you have no idea. You have no idea. I haven’t had my — I know, I know I can do better. And you guys have no idea. It sounds pathetic to beg up here. But you guys, seriously, I have this in me. You have no idea what I can do. And I have tried to show it, and I lost my voice on group day. You have n— The passion in me and the drive, it is unbelievable. Just please see that, I can do this. Do not send me home, I have it. I do, I have it. I’ve got it. You have to see that. It’s in here. This is so important to me. Please, puh-lease. I’ve got it. I have it. I have it in me. I have it.”

When Jessica demands to know a reason why she didn’t make it, Simon, without missing a beat, lays it out in his trademark robotic way: “You didn’t sing as well as the others.”

He has no idea.

“I think you come away from this better than when you started.”
— Simon to “Big Mike” Lynche — since “Idol” surely must improve each life it touches. Like yours and mine, right? Right.

» “Big Mike” Lynche: Who doesn’t like this guy? And he’s got a good voice, of course.
» Casey James: Kara’s favorite eye candy is also a formidable singer/strummer.
» Lee Dewyze: My faith in him is wavering after seeing more of his Hollywood work, but I’m going to stick by Mr. Raspy for now. Don’t go all Bryan Adams on me, Lee.
» Todrick Hall: I like his voice and I like his style. Let’s hope he finds his focus.

Really, though, I can’t say I disagree with any of the judges’ choices so far — either the keepers or the losers. Although Seacrest’s promise of a “shocking” elimination has me wondering whether a seeming untouchable — they seem to want to put us on the scent of Andrew Garcia — might lose his seat.

And we leave our little Idolites with just seven members of the Top 24 confirmed — “Big Mike” Lynche, Didi Benami, Katelyn Epperly, Casey James, Aaron Kelly, Todrick Hall and Lee Dewyze — and dozens still waiting to learn their fate.

And the image “Idol” leaves us with? A faceless masculine voice sobbing in a bathroom stall. Fitting, isn’t it?

» COMING UP: On Wednesday, our ragged seven becomes a full set of 24 as “Idol” finally applies a tourniquet to its Hollywood bloodletting. I’ll have another recap Thursday morning right here at ExpressNightOut.com/idol.

Till then, what did you think of the choices? Did the seven who made it through deserve their good fortune? Should the judges have saved any of their castoffs? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

Photos courtesy Fox