A small part of me died last week when Mandisa, the fertility goddess/gospel mama, was voted off American Idol. It’s one thing to see the mediocre singers go: Like any death, it’s sad, but also reassuring. In your heart, you know it’s the right thing. That’s the beauty of Idol much of the time: Unlike real life, where the wrong people die every day, on American Idol, people play God better than God. But when the most talented female singer on the show gets booted so early, well, it’s a little too much like real life.

Then again, last week was one of the best in the history of the show. At its finest, Idol is alive and prone to chaos, and all the elements come together to expose the warm, bloody, bizarre humanity beneath the show’s glossy façade. A more broken bag of skin and souls I have not seen since The Swan.

Take Paula Abdul, who seems to be a very, very sad person doing her best to feel very, very happy. Paula is still capable of surprising us: Last week, she dropped the script to critique a contestant whom Simon Cowell actually liked, and was booed for the first time. She also exclaimed, “I love you, Ryan!” at the show’s start, when Ryan Seacrest was doing his intro — which prompted the show’s producer, Nigel Lythgoe, seated in the audience, to proclaim his love for Ryan as well . . . and sorta half-grab Ryan’s ass.

In another first, the ribbing between Simon and Ryan — which normally contains a degree of light gay baiting — took a really awkward turn, as the two made direct digs at each other’s love lives. Said Simon to Ryan (who’s supposedly dating Teri Hatcher), “I’m not the one trying to look like someone out of Desperate Housewives. Lose the beard.” Dang! When Ryan noted that the judges were clearly hiding a flask, it seemed more an observation than hyperbole. But isn’t that what made live TV great in the days of Match Game and Merv Griffin and the Dean Martin show? If I had my way, Simon would be chain-smoking up there as well. You know he’s dying to.

Strangest of all, last week’s guest coach was someone calling himself Kenny Rogers. I’ve never seen it before: Plastic surgery actually made someone look younger. A lot younger. And, you know, like a completely different person. It’s funny. Week after week, these brutally damaged superstars — some disfigured, most egomaniacs — appear to the Idol kids like walking cautionary tales on the dangers of fame. Hell, the hosts do too. But that’s one lesson they always seem to miss.

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