I'm not saying it's been a long while since I was able to attend an "American Idol" taping, but the last time I was in the audience for TV's most popular singing competition, the director wore puffy pants and used a hand-cranked camera. The contestants all starred in a Union Pacific Railroad commercial that featured Simon Cowell tying a contestant to the tracks and twirling his mustache. Ryan Seacrest asked audiences to Morse Code in their votes for dot-dash-dash-dash or dot-dot-dash-dash-dash and the judges all sipped on sarsaparilla. 
 
Even though I live a 30-minute drive from the CBS Studios stage where "Idol" films, I realized the corporeal limitations that would prevent me from recapping the show on East Coast time, while simultaneously attending the show live. So although that initial paragraph may have been a tiny bit hyperbolic, the reality is that I haven't been in the "Idol" audience since Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken were waging their epic war for the hearts and souls of the American people back in 2003.
 
With Season 10's first two episodes taping early -- live shows will begin next week -- I was able to catch the Top 12 Men performing on Friday and the Top 12 Women performing on Monday, while simultaneously watching and blogging on their performances on Tuesday and Wednesday. It's the sort of technological dexterity that would astound our caveman ancestors. 
 
Back in the Simon Cowell Administration, The Lord High Judge would often comment that he got a very different impression of performances after watching them back on TV that night. He's right, of course. And experiencing the unique energy of an "Idol" taping doesn't improve or depreciate the value of the on-air performances, it just gives a different perspective. As a result, my blog recaps over the next two nights will be peppered with little observations that came from seeing things live, sides that maybe viewers didn't see at home, glimpses at how the "Idol" sausage was squished into its 90-minute primetime casing.
 
This post will contain no spoilers about song selection or the actual performances themselves, which guys and gals installed themselves as early favorites, and which pre-coronated entertainers went down in flames. But I still want to offer a few teases of what viewers can expect from Tuesday and Wednesday's shows.
 
Click through for lots and lots of bullet points...
 
I remember sitting down for my first "Idol" taping back in Season Two and being shocked by how small the theater and the audience were for a show that always very successfully forged an illusion of grandeur. There was a stage and some risers, some lights and some screens, but the "Idol" reality was bizarrely primitive.
 
That's no longer the case. The first thing that viewers will notice on Tuesday night is that "American Idol" has become a full 360-degree experience, with the addition of a new upper tier of seating above and behind the stage itself. I'm not convinced it's a great place to watch the show. After two episodes, the "Idol" production staff still hasn't reached a consensus on whether the fans back there should or are able to stand during or after performances, because the slope appears precarious. And when the warm-up guy greeted those fans on Monday, he raved that "You get to look at booty all night long." But just as Fenway Park has managed to leverage every available inch of space for seating, while avoiding the sort of foundation-destroying overhauls that might outrage purists, the "Idol" production staff has found a way to turn a not-so-huge stage into a really well-appointed theater-in-the-round, where the director and camera-people no longer need to cheat angles to make it long like the contestants are surrounded by rabid, shrieking fans. The singers are now at the center of a maelstrom, perched on a stage highlighted by a clear "Idol" circle that appears to allow for lighting to come up from underneath them and that definitely requires either constant polishing or else the patenting of some sort of machine that's half Roomba, half Zamboni. 
 
The upgrade of "Idol" stage accouterments has also continues. The huge video screens that play clip packages and cheesy screensaver-style backdrops must have been financed by a donation from the Dillon Panthers Boosters (little "Friday Night Lights" joke) and the spinning, towering "American Idol" globes on each side of the stage run constantly, fueled either by former "Idol" contestants on bicycles -- Has anybody seen Kevin Covais since "College" bombed? -- or by an electrical supply capable of powering Malta for a calendar year. Cameras soar from all sides.
 
On Friday night, the filming started late, with a variety of technical kinks still being worked out with the new Big Stage. As Jay the Warm-Up Guy instructed the audience on when and how to clap -- hands high, in front of the face -- and staged competitions for fast-food prizes, returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe prowled the audience a bit like an expectant father, but more like the master of ceremonies at a very unruly circus. Even once host Ryan Seacrest was activated from his cryo-freeze -- with a personal stylist/suit-monger never far away, always vigilant lest his pleats go astray -- there were a variety of tiny gaffes as the filming took well over two hours. 
 
On Monday, filming started on time and was done in just over 90 minutes. 
 
And Thursday, they'll be live. 
 
These people are damn good at what they do.
 
 
Some stray observations from two nights of taping:
 
*** The guys are ahead of the girls. I won't say anything else beyond that, except for to note that by my very unscientific count, I can envision scenarios in which at least five guys could have a viable chance of winning. There are only two girls I'd give a realistic chance to. But I'd add that if the pieces go the right way, there's no reason why this shouldn't be the deepest field of Finalists in "Idol" history. If America votes correctly over the next two nights, there shouldn't be a painfully weak link in the bunch.
 
*** That doesn't mean there aren't less-than-awesome performances and after saying virtually nothing during the audition rounds, Randy Jackson has actually embraced his role as truth-teller. That is to say that while Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez may not be comfortable offering negative critiques, Randy speaks for himself in these first two episodes. He hasn't become Simon Cowell, but you'll see that his voice is necessary in these first two episodes.
 
*** The Judges have always been stars, but J-Lo and Tyler take it to new extremes. Just as Simon used to get more than his share of signs in the crowd, Tyler has taken his position as target for many of the women in the crowd and the commercial break shouts of "We Love You Steven" became so pervasive that in one lull, the Top 12 men expressed their love, in tandem. And as for Lopez? Well, wait til you get a look at her outfit for Wednesday's show. That's all I'll say about that.
 
*** As a follow-up to the previous bullet-point, each commercial break now features at least four stylists around J-Lo and Tyler. Randy? He just keeps it real, dawg.
 
*** Hopefully this will never be seen on TV, but one of the "best" things about the 360 seating is that "Idol" audiences can now do The Wave. This really amused Jay the Warm-Up Guy on Friday. The Monday warm-up guy wasn't nearly as amused.
 
*** My seat for tonight's show was right next to a piece of Orange tape indicating that it would be a shooting position for some point during the episode. I politely asked a teenage girl down my row if she'd like the opportunity to possibly be on TV and certainly be within Ryan Seacrest's Aura. I'm sure it's what the producers would have wanted. By the way, speaking of people who are good at their jobs, Seacrest is masterful at what he does, especially during commercial breaks. What he hasn't nailed down, at least so far, is the banter with the judges. That will come in time, I assume.
 
Anyway, more insider dirt in my Monkeys As Critics "Idol" recap later tonight...