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If Tuesday’s episode of “American Idol” was a machine-gun-style burst of rejection, Wednesday’s was rifle shot after rifle shot, as Simon, Paula and Randy picked off contestants with unflinching precision and speed.

After reviewing the tapes of the remaining 44 contestants’ performances, the judges sat each singer in a wooden chair, stretched out the suspense, delivered the verdict, then moved on to the next victim, pausing only long enough to reload.

Like on Tuesday’s show, much of the tension was of the manufactured variety. Contestants were penned into a holding area, where they often sat whimpering, watching as one person at a time stepped into an elevator and disappeared. The doors opened again in the judging room, where the judges delivered their verdict.

Though not as cringe-inducingly bad as Paula Abdul’s fake crying from Tuesday’s episode, there were a few instances of judges trying to inject fake drama into the proceedings by attempting the old switcheroo. “I don’t know how to say this, or how to put it,” Randy said to one contestant, shaking his head. “But you’re through to the next round!”

When they were done, 20 people were sent back down the Elevator Ride of Shame, leaving 12 men and 12 women to go into the next round. And there weren’t any huge injustices or startling twists along the way. Simply put, most of the people who made it to the big show deserved to be there. And most of the ones who went home, talented as they were, didn’t spark protests in the streets or angry calls to congresspeople decrying the injustice of it all.

Wednesday’s episode — though billed as “the most dramatic ‘Idol’ yet” — didn’t generate a whole lot of voltage on the ol’ shock-o-meter. For viewers, that is.

Tough news to swallowGetting cut came as a legitimate surprise to a good number of contestants, a far cry from Tuesday's show, when many seemed either resigned to their fate or so overconfident that rejection didn't even dent their enormous egos. (I'm talking to you, Aa'sia.)

Up until this point, it’s been fairly easy to play along at home, determining who will stay and who will go. “Idol” hasn’t exactly been stingy with the clues. Savvy viewers could probably figure out that most of the 24 people who made it through Wednesday’s episode are the same folks who have logged the highest percentage of airtime so far.

In fact, of the 19 remaining contestants who were mentioned by name or featured in a video vignette on Tuesday’s show, only five were given the boot on Wednesday. Lesson? “Idol” identifies its frontrunners early, so if they follow you to shoot tape as you deliver mail in your hometown or walk down the street with your mom, you might want to pop some champagne.

But while most of the cuts weren’t much of a surprise to the audience, they hit some unlucky contestants like a Fox-shaped freight train.

Faith Gatewood took it the hardest. After tearfully pressing too many buttons on the elevator and getting out on the wrong floor, she finally made it back to the holding area, where she let loose a rant. “I have nothing to go back to,” she sobbed. “This is all I ever get. Boys, money, jobs, everything.” Then she ran from the building in tears, forcing Ryan Seacrest to awkwardly go after her. “Take a breath,” he counseled, holding her hand. “Take a moment.” It’s good to know Seacrest is there, and apparently trained as a psychologist.

When Jamie Paul Koehler got the news, he simply sat in the chair for an awkwardly long period, stunned. “I — I didn’t think that’s what was gonna happen,” he finally said. He eventually stumbled off the seat for emotional hugs with Randy and Paula, but the still-stunned singer was held — literally — at arm’s length by Simon’s stiff handshake.

Although not nearly as dramatic as Gatewood’s or Koehler’s reactions, fellow rejectee Erin Furey contributed an equally memorable moment to the proceedings. “The best way to handle it is to accept whatever the decision is gracefully,” she said. And she did.

As much as some viewers hope for hissy fits or uncontrolled wailing, tonight it was the receivers of good news who seemed to deliver the most entertaining reactions. Perky 16-year-old Mikalah Gordon, on the verge of tears the entire show, unleashed a hilarious stream-of-consciousness gratitude-fest that couldn’t have been scripted better. Best yet, she chided naughty Simon for saying that he didn’t mind delivering bad news.

Aloha Mischeaux is giving Gordon a run for her money as far as quotable nuggets go. She danced her way back to the holding room, where she told Seacrest, “Y’all made me so nervous, my feet shrunk,” and, “I’m so happy, I need a donut.”

The harder they fallThese people have had three weeks to celebrate the fact that they made it to this level, no doubt watching and rewatching their worn copy of “From Justin to Kelly” or pasting a photo of their face over a Clay Aiken magazine cover. By the time they’ve gotten this far, it’s no surprise that many of them truly believe that, yeah, maybe they really did deserve a chance to make it to the top.

Instead, the rejected contestants are scooping what they can recover of their shattered dreams from the floor and heading home. Losing is tough. Losing within view of the top? Devastating.

But it’s part of the process. Tonight, promoted as “the most brutal cut of all,” “Idol” finally cleared away much of the chaff. So here’s where it gets interesting. Now viewers will begin to root for their favorites, and they’ll share in the excitement when their top picks move on to the next level, and the disappointment when their favorites get knocked out. As the pool of contestants gets smaller and smaller, audience fervor is only going to increase. And so is the potential for unexpected eliminations that will have viewers buzzing. Voting begins on Monday.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in Minneapolis.