American Idol Season Finale Recap: Low and Steady Wins the Race

Sometimes I seriously question my obsession with American Idol. After all, there’s no other show on television that consistently causes spikes in my blood pressure — whether it’s from the blind fury I feel toward the show’s inept and inconsistent judging panel, the frustration I experience with its thoroughly uninspired theme nights and song lists, or the rolling rage of wondering things like “Where the frak is Pia Toscano’s finale duet?”

But Wednesday night’s Season 10 finale managed to dilute my cynicism, erase my grouchiness, and bring real human tears to my eyes. Call me a sentimental fool, but after two hours of mostly terrific musical performances, the sight of 17-year-old Scotty McCreery hugging his family and fellow contestants, then collapsing into a puddle of joy and disbelief and confetti, was the kind of happy ending that was hard not to love — regardless of whether or not it was carefully manufactured in Nigel Lythgoe’s laboratory. Regardless of whether or not you secretly hoped a trap door might open up in the stage and send Randy, J.Lo, and Steven down into the pit with the Rancor. And regardless of whether or not, deep down, you really felt the title belonged to Haley (or Lauren or Pia or James or Casey or Paul).

Scotty, for his part, is not a perfect Idol winner. His Season 10 run was one that favored a brand of hardwired musical consistency over qualities like artistic derring-do, moment-making creativity, emotional beauty, or vocal explosiveness. But he certainly took us on a journey, starting as a polite, baseball-playin’ kid who wowed the judges with the impossibly low tones of Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” detouring through a Hollywood Week nightmare that threatened to turn him into a joke (“nuts of wonder”) or a pariah (Jacee Badeaux-gate), and then reemerging as a legitimate threat for the crown with a steady stream of country ditties and very few missed notes over 12 weeks of live competition. I can think of a lot worse ways to bring an Idol season to a close than watching Scotty try to catch confetti on his tongue. The Season 10 champ is a very good singer who still has room to grow once he leaves the show, and he seems awfully likable, too.

Which isn’t to say that Season 10 — Idol‘s first without irascible Brit Simon Cowell — wasn’t one of missed opportunities, too. Kendra Chantelle and Lauren Turner got inexplicably passed over for Wild Card berths. Pia Toscano got held to a different standard of judging and went home too soon. Steven Tyler turned out to be nothing more than Ellen DeGeneres in a wig and Chico’s sportswear. Randy Jackson continued a ten-season tradition of playing Idol‘s parrot on a perch: Mindlessly squawking the catchphrases fed into his ear till his voice faded into white noise or made you want to throttled him. And J.Lo? She disappointed most of all. The erstwhile Jenny from the Block spent a few weeks giving succinct, insightful feedback, then gave it all up to follow the Lythgoe party line, giggle her way through the serious work of trying to help the finalists become better artists, and throw stank eye at Haley Reinhart, the improving underdog who threatened to be the hair in the soup of a preordained Scotty-Lauren finale.

Exclusive: Nigel Lythgoe on Haley Bashing,
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Wednesday night, none of that mattered, as the judges were relegated to brief “highlight reel” packages, Jimmy Iovine went the way of Brian Dunkleman and disappeared completely, and Stefano Langone and Naima Adedapo respectively dropped funny zingers about Lauren and Scotty being better suited to American Juniors and having Similac on their breath.

‘American Idol’ Performance Night Recap: ‘Mother’ Load

And then there was Scotty giving props to runner-up Lauren Alaina, delivering a post-victory smooch, and saying they’d been together since the start and would stay together going forward. Do we have a showmance on our hands? Let me say this: I honestly, deeply, and truly could not care less about the love lives of two people who aren’t old enough to venture unaccompanied into a voting booth. So let’s move on to the business of rating the night’s musical performances, shall we?

Musical Performances

Season 10’s Top 13: “Born This Way” You know what’s worse than cacophonous harmonies and botched notes? Aggressively Auto-Tuned backing tracks that render one Idol’s voice almost completely indistinguishable from the next. And also skipping the “don’t be a drag/ just be a queen” breakdown of Gaga’s self-acceptance anthem. #Weak. (Side note: If Gaga was in the house, why not have her take the stage with the Idol contestants? That should be the minimum cost of business for getting a full segment to promote your latest single, no?) Grade: D

James Durbin and Judas Priest: “Living After Midnight”/”Breaking the Law”
I’m still not entirely sure why James was dressed as a patrolman for the Village People Police Dept. (or maybe he was channeling “Justify My Love”-era Madonna?), but I got a kick out of seeing the Season 10 rocker beaming his way through a performance bursting with pyro, sirens, and generous interplay with lead singer Rob Halford. Grade: B+

Idoloonies: James Durbin Talks Flaming Pianos,
Metal ‘Revolution,’ ‘Waterworld’ Inspiration

Jacob Lusk, Kirk Franklin, and Gladys Knight: “I Smile”
Yeah, Franklin’s loopy/inspirational(ish) shout-outs (“all the tornado victims!”) were peculiar, but I was happy that the Pips’ headmistress used invisible fishing wire (or some other magic) to reel in Jacob’s vocals whenever they threatened to careen over the musical waterfall of good taste and common sense. (Oh, Gladys, where were you to reel me in when I was writing that last sentence!) And I’m upgrading this from a B- based on Ms. Knight’s glamorous black sequined cape alone. Grade: B

Casey Abrams and Jack Black: “Fat Bottomed Girls”
It was like Casey took everything I liked about his Season 10 performances — the jazzy sensibility, the sublime phrasing, the sense of comfort in his own skin — and flushed them down the toilet in favor of this sweaty, mangey, nose-to-nose comic-off with Jack Black. (Spoiler alert: Caseylost!) The only thing less appealing than Casey’s relentless hollering (“OH YEAH” “PUH-LEASE!”) was the unfortunate introduction of those dancing chicks in fluorescent booty shorts. Ryan succinctly summed up the entire reason for this performance as Casey and Mr. Black exited the stage: “Jack’s new movie Kung Fu Panda II comes out tomorrow.” Grade: Ugh.

Haley, Pia, Ashthon, Karen, Naima, and Thia (with Beyoncé): Beyoncé medley
I’d have preferred it if the producers pared down the number of songs in the medley — and thereby cut back on the number of rocky transitions and tempo changes — but every single one of the Season 10 ladies (even Karen and Thia!) managed to sound fresh, current, and in tune here. Haley and Ashthon slayed those harmonies on “If I Were a Boy,” Thia and Karen were better on “Irreplaceable” than anything they’d done all season, and Pia more than proved her uptempo prowess on “Déjà Vu.” By the time Amazoncé emerged in full “Pose! Face!” mode for “Crazy in Love,” I was hooting and hollering from my couch. Grade: A-

Haley Reinhart and Tony Bennett: “Steppin Out With My Baby”
Can I express my boundless happiness that Uncle Nigel & Co. gave Haley a stripped-down jazzy moment (opposite a living legend) where she didn’t have to compete with Bandzilla or an overbearing track? Every note of the song was perfectly delivered, and the smile on Haley’s face after Tony gave her a couple of mid-song twirls was a thing of joyous beauty. Grade: A

TLC with Ashthon, Naima, Karen, and Thia: “No Scrubs”/”Waterfalls”
Hello, was anybody’s mic on? Grade: D

Scotty McCreery and Tim McGraw: “Live Like You Were Dying” Which was lower: Scotty’s voice or Tim’s hat brim? In all seriousness, though, this was a totally fine performance in which superstar McGraw looked more than happy to share the mic with the Idol upstart. I just wish every A-lister on the roster had been forced to split their screentime with one of the Season 10 Top 13. I mean, celebrating the contestants’ season-long journeys is kind of the point of this exercise, no? Grade: B+

Marc Anthony (flanked by a gyrating lhasa apso) Apologies in advance for not knowing the name of the song Mr. J.Lo performed, but he sold it like a calorie-free, full-flavor cheeseburger. Special thanks to Jennifer, too, for not mucking things up by opening her pie hole. Grade: A-

Tom Jones and The Men of Season 10’s Top 13: Tom Jones medley
I loved how the guys fully embraced the camp spirit of Jones’ songbook — and didn’t take their choreography too too seriously, either. Paul’s voice sounded terrific on an all-too-brief slice of “She’s a Lady,” and where was Stefano’s penchant for falsetto, uptempo performances up till now? His rendition of “Kiss” was crazy sexy cool! Grade: B+

Lady Gaga: “Edge of ReasonGlory”
Welcome to Fox’s family-friendly programming hour, where simulated sex on a giant rock formation and the dulcet tones of Clarence Clemons’ sax can peacefully coexist. Grade: B

Lauren Alaina and Carrie Underwood: “Before He Cheats”
Carrie was serving a major Kristin Chenoweth vibe with her silver one-shoulder number, white short shorts, and feathered hair, no? I kinda wish the producers had picked one of the Season 4 champ’s uplifting ballads (rather than her scorned-chick-on-a-felonious-prowl ditty) to showcase our squeaky clean runner-up, but Carrie showed gracious restraint and let Little Lauren keep up. Grade: B

Beyoncé: “One Plus One” Note to Jennifer Lopez: The next time you say a performance defies any kind of judging, it’d better be as unbelievable as this. Thank you. That is all. Grade: A+

Bono, The Edge, and Reeve Carney: Something from that doomed Spider-Man musical I keep reading about Um, guys, can we get to the results already? Grade: No, seriously, can we get to the results already?

Steven Tyler: “Dream On” What was with the jarringly abrupt ending to the Aerosmith frontman’s performance? Was Cecile Frot-Coutaz worried the loose cannon judge might start dropping f-bombs? Aside from that bit of weirdness, though, there’s no denying Steven remains in incredible vocal form after all these years. I sorta wish he’d been joined by James Durbin (or even better, Fantasia, who once memorably covered “Dream On” with Pat Monahan at a VH1 event) just to complete the Idol circle of life, so to speak.Grade: A-

Scotty McCreery: “I Love You This Big” (victory ballad) Scotty barely got out a note of this treacly albatross of a debut single, which was probably the right move. Also: Way to leave Jack Black hanging for the hug, dude! Grade: N/A

And now, on to our awards ceremony for the evening!

One Hundred ‘Save the Growler’ Points for Acknowledging Randy Jackson’s Abysmal Performance Throughout Season 10
Awarded to whichever editor spliced together the Dawg’s inane “in it to win it” litany, and to Ryan Seacrest, for cheekily telling Randy, “We gotta get you a new writer.”

Worst Places in the World to Watch the Season Finale
All I could think when Ryan cut to footage of those raucous viewing parties in Raleigh, NC, and Chattanooga, TN, was this: “How are they going to keep everyone silent when Haley starts performing?”

Worst News in the World for Matt Rogers and Mikalah Gordon
What? Idol couldn’t shell out a couple bucks to have the former finalists check in via satellite feed from said viewing parties in Raleigh, NC, and Chattanooga, TN?

Most (Unintentionally?) Creepy Comment from Ryan Seacrest
“Tomorrow, you can own a piece of a superstar!” (commenting on the Thursday morning availability of debut singles from Idol‘s teenage finalists)

The “Teaching Is Great, But…” Prize
It was nice of Ford to dole out new Focuses to Scotty and Lauren’s teachers, but way to kill the buzz by promptly turning around and telling their students they could get any Ford vehicle they set their teenage hearts on

The “Ryan, Move Your Head!” Award
Anyone notice Lee DeWyze (not invited to sing during the finale, by the bye) intermittently popping out from behind Ryan’s noggin as he introduced that goofy segment of the Season 10 finalists discussing Lauren and Scotty’s ages?

The “They Sell Black and White Clothes at the Clown Shop?” Trophy
Randy’s white tux with black piping (paired with black bowtie with white piping): A thing of stunning hideousness

Wonderfully Unexpected Cameo
Sarah Sellers’ Lips! (Too bad we didn’t get to hear her voice, too, eh?)

Unexpectedly Racy Cameo
Haley’s garter: Rated G for Grrrrlllll!

Segment That Was Cute Until It Went on Too Long, And Then Got Cute Again at the End
Casey and James arguing over whose ouster was more shocking, then getting shut down by Pia

Things You Should Not Miss on TVLine.com Now That Idol Season is Over
Let’s not lose touch just because the confetti has fallen from the Nokia rafters, okay? All summer long, I’ll be recapping The Voice, Platinum Hit, So You Think You Can Dance, and all your favorite reality shows!

And with that, I turn things over to you. What did you think of the Season 10 Idol finale? Did the right person win? What were your favorite and least favorite performances from Wednesday night? Sound off below, then hit the comments to share your thoughts, feelings, and conspiracy theories. And for all my Idol news, reviews, and interviews — including video Q&As next week with the Season 10 Top 3 — follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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