After 15 years, America’s favorite blue-lit bubble of lasers, chyrons, vocal bombast and residual glitter from J.Lo’s ridiculous costuming has finally popped. “FOR NOW…” the voice of Ryan Seacrest hinted ominously after the lights went down on Idol’s series finale. What does that mean? Will the bubble inflate again elsewhere? The internet? Simon Fuller’s backyard pool? Why would they say that? This shady messaging somewhat corrupted the finale’s otherwise cathartic effect, but it’s probably better to focus on all the high points instead. Season 6’s Sanjaya Malakar changed his wig three times! Wait, no, this one’s even better: Tenderhearted, offbeat Mississippi warbler Trent Harmon has won the Farewell Season! The judges and most audience members looked shocked, as vocal behemoth La’Porsha Renae really did seem to be carting around her projected win in a bedazzled stroller since day one. (Both are getting recording contracts with 19/Big Machine.) Trent weaseled his way in there, slowly but surely, like a virus you’re not even sure you’re fighting against. What a triumph against mononucleosis these past few weeks have turned out to be.
And that about sums up this disappointing season — yet Thursday’s two-hour-six-minute finale did its very best to muster up memories of a brighter Idol. The whole show played out more like a well-produced reunion bonanza than a wonky season finale, thank God. After Trent and La’Porsha were made to duet on “It Takes Two” — surely against their wills, just like Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson in Season 1 — we barely saw them again, and the rest of Season 15’s unwanted cattle popped up only when manual labor was required. (That giant American Idol sign gifted to Ryan Seacrest by Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson wasn’t going to wheel itself onstage for five seconds.)
I didn’t really mind, because over 50 former Idol standouts got to grace the stage instead, along with obvious faves like Daughtry, Kelly, and Carrie. Ideally, the finale would’ve been three hours long so everyone could get a chance to sing and maybe each of Carrie Underwood’s legs could have its own solo. But wait, that might put Jennifer Lopez’s dance segment, adjusted for inflation, over the 20-minute mark. And I’m just not sure anyone could have handled that.
I’m still reeling from her migraine-inducing striptease — sadly, in the midst of so much returning talent, my most lasting impression of the finale might be J.Lo’s relentless booty popping amidst a sea of feathers as she shimmied through her greatest hit that’s also her mission statement for music: “Let’s Get Loud.” She also debuted “Ain’t Your Mama,” an anthem against man-children containing the lines “I ain’t gonna do your laundry” and “No more playing video games…’Cause I’m too good for that.” Aren’t we all too good for this? Maybe not. Sometimes J.Lo really gets me to think (about feathers). The show seamlessly blended pre-taped segments — Kelly Clarkson’s incredible medley of hits topped off by a tear-jerking a cappella version of “A Moment Like This” and a luminous “Bridge Over Troubled Water” from Season three's Diva Trio (Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, LaToya London) — with the good old-fashioned live grit we’ve been dying to see again. I loved the element of surprise throughout; we never quite knew who’d pop up and then boom! There’s Pia Toscano looking hot as hell hitting the glory note in “All By Myself” to wrap up a segment. There’s Carly Smithson softly slaying “Here You Come Again” alongside a solo harpist. There’s Jessica Sanchez getting all “Now do I have enough life experience for you bitches?” four years later with a stunning cover of “The Prayer.” What’s that slithering up the standing mic at center stage? Why, it’s Joshua Ledet erupting with wild-eyed prowess on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”! I wish Melinda Doolittle and Candice Glover had been given more time to duet on “Joy to the World” at the end of a rousing group soul number, and I wanted more from winners David Cook and Kris Allen during the classy WGWG (white guys with guitars) tribute to David Bowie. Obviously I wanted full segments from my favorite contestants Haley Reinhart and Adam Lambert (both busy working out of town). But you can never have it all. You can only have more J.Lo.
Former judges Steven Tyler, Nicki Minaj, and Ellen DeGeneres were content to film cheesy thank you segments from the comfort of their own sets, while Kara DioGuardi flung herself onstage as if desperately auditioning to be a singer-songwriter-judge. Someone should probably tell her the show is dunzo. Meanwhile, Mariah Carey simply couldn’t be bothered, dahling. The legendary Simon Cowell, complete with a new facelift and beard, made a surprise appearance with Randy and Paula, but he wasn’t quite mean enough for my taste; it sort of seemed like a Casper the Friendly Ghost version of him had wandered in instead. R.I.P. Original Simon. William Hung and Larry Platt (the Pants on the Ground guy) kept their final network TV cringe-fests thankfully short, but I still wanted to spray them off the screen like little bugs. I guess that’s the point of them, though. Aw, nostalgia. There it is. Works every time. This shortened season was such a bummer, but Thursday’s finale crammed in enough hot flashes to remind me all over again how major this show was way back when it actually mattered. I felt at least a dozen confetti snowstorms Thursday, not just Trent’s. Cheers to American Idol, the little talent engine that launched hundreds of careers and millions of YouTube playbacks. I know I’ll never stop watching.