AMERICAN IDOL. 8 tonight, Channel 29.

AS CONSPIRACY theorists go, I'm a rank amateur.

Don't have a clue what's really up on that "Lost" island, though I watch it every week.

Am only marginally more confident of my grasp of the doings in "Jericho," and would likely have been forced to the side of the road in "Drive" sooner or later if Fox hadn't put the whole thing up on blocks after just four hours.

(Yes, that's why "House" was on before "24" last night. TV runs on Nielsen ratings, and from Fox's perspective, "Drive's" tank was just about dry.)

But while I'm often confused by the evil that men (and women) do as their creators string along hapless viewers who are just in it for the character development, I'm as suspicious as anyone alive of what goes on on Fox's "American Idol."

Last week's "shocking" decision not to send anyone home on "Idol Gives Back" night?

Not so shocking, at least not to longtime "Idol"-watchers.

Making it look as if 17-year-old Jordin Sparks might be going home?

SIOP - Standard "Idol" Operating Procedure.

You only have to listen to Simon Cowell or to see where producers put Jordin's "You'll Never Walk Alone" for "Idol Gives Back" - in the final slot reserved for show-stoppers - to know how they think she's doing.

But they also know that "Idol" viewers don't always do what Simon says. LaKisha Jones is no doubt clinging to that, because what he's been saying for the past couple of weeks about her is that the voice that got her this far now sounds like "shouting."

LaKisha-bashing might not be enough to clear a way for Jordin, though.

What better way, then, to assure the competition's only remaining teen a place in the final three than by mobilizing her base by making it look as if she might be in actual peril?

Yahoo! reports that after the usually upbeat Jordin shed tears on last week's show, searches involving her name increased 75 percent, putting her second only to Blake Lewis (down 9 percent) among searches for the remaining finalists.

If that kind of interest translates into votes, Jordin shouldn't have anything to cry about this week.

Smart girls from 'Mars'

If you're looking for signs of intelligent life on the CW, there's more and more reason to look past "Gilmore Girls."

Especially tonight, when "Veronica Mars" returns (9 p.m., Channel 57).

Because while we've been told for years now that Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) is smart, we've been given scant evidence beyond the Yale degree she's about to receive.

Turning down an actual reporting job at a newspaper like the Providence Journal for the mere possibility of a "fellowship" at the New York Times?

Not smart, particularly at a time when our business is so challenged that the psychological testing for applicants that we used to laugh off might now actually be a good idea.

But holding out for something that sounded more prestigious only showed how spoiled Rory's become.

Contrast that with Veronica, the girl detective who's had to fight for everything, from respect to ratings points.

Tonight, as the show tinkers with its format yet again with an episode that wraps up its mystery in an hour, "Veronica Mars" fans are hoping for numbers that will persuade the CW that America needs more than a "Next Top Model" - and a spoiled Yalie. *

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