EVERY SO often, the judges on Fox's "American Idol" get to make a contestant cry.
Last night, they took that show on the road.
In Kenya, judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest squeezed tears out of a couple of orphans.
In Louisiana, a woman dispossessed by Hurricane Katrina sobbed in Randy Jackson's arms.
Back in Los Angeles, Paula Abdul visited a Boys & Girls Club around the corner from "Idol" 's Television City studios, where she, too, managed to get a girl whose mother works three jobs to pay the bills to cry - apparently in response to Paula's sharing her own experience as a child who turned to dancing while her mom was working.
Dance lessons cost money, Paula.
Yes, folks, this is "Idol Gives Back," in which television's No. 1 show attempted over the last two nights to take the power that kept Sanjaya Malakar in our living rooms week after long week and turn it into a force for good.
Chances are they succeeded, Americans being a generous people and most "Idol" viewers being well able to distinguish between the syrupy sympathy of Ryan & Company and the genuine need on display.
"Idol Gives Back" may turn out to be good for a lot of people - though no one should have to participate in awkwardly staged photo ops with celebrities to get help - but it's not necessarily so good for "Idol," a show many of us value as much for its cynicism as its singing.
Should "Idol" be giving back? Sure. Why not? With the highest ad rate of any series on television - Advertising Age pegs it at an average $620,000 per 30-second spot, climbing to more than $1 million for last spring's finale - it can certainly afford the $5 million Fox parent News Corp. pledged in return for driving votes on Tuesday's show.
It could even afford to do it quietly, or at least away from the main show. Though doing it this way drew celebs, dozens of them, some of whom might never have appeared on "Idol" otherwise. (If the number of pre-taped pieces was higher than some viewers expected, Elvis Presley's "duet" with Celine Dion was still a surprising bit of wizardry.)
"Idol" sponsors, too, got a chance to attach their names to a worthy cause.
I do wonder how some Louisianans might have felt about Allstate's sponsorship of the film about Randy's visit there, particularly in light of the Katrina-related lawsuits the company's still fighting in that region or the $2.8 million judgment the company lost earlier this month, which included a $1.5 million penalty for failing to pay one homeowner there promptly.
(The company's appealing.)
But amid Simon's anguished discoveries that there are conditions even worse than those that prevail in cabarets, on cruise ships and at Magic Mountain, the "Idol" results show was still going on, with one contestant being released to safety every 15 or 20 minutes, while Ryan continued to promise the Most Shocking Result Ever.
When it came, it really was shocking, assuming you're shocked when a TV show wimps out.
Though it looked for one terrible moment as if 17-year-old Jordin Sparks might be outtahere, "Idol" was just fooling with us.
"How can we let anyone go on a charity night?" asked Ryan, as he explained that next week, this week's 70 million votes will be added in to the final vote count, and the bottom two sent home.
Wonder who'll be crying then? *