The Glee Project Season Finale Recap: And the Winner Is...

After 40,000 applicants, 12 contestants, 10 weeks of performances, and four evenly matched finalists, the inaugural season of Oxygen’s The Glee Project has reached its undeniably surprising conclusion. There were showtunes and big band tunes and even a Dolly Parton tune before a twist that was worthy of a Law & Order “chung-chung.” And the winner is…Samuel Larsen. And the winner is also…Damian McGinty.

Yes, indeed, Glee co-creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy dropped a bombshell at the end of Sunday night’s season finale that both Samuel and Damian had won respective seven-episode arcs on Season 3 of the Glee mothership.

What’s more, fellow finalists Lindsay Pearce and Alex Newell scored pretty darn enviable consolation prizes — each winning two-episode guest arcs when Glee‘s action returns to the fictional William McKinley High School on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

For folks who love sad, tearful reality TV exits, Murphy’s “gold stars for everyone!” decision was the worst possible outcome. But after a season in which eliminations felt arbitrary at best and infuriating at worst, I thought the finale played out like a sweet, satisfying dessert that came close to salvaging an otherwise inconsistent meal. I mean, it’s not like Glee‘s third season was ever going to play out without new and recurring characters entering the fray. And with Samuel, Damian, Lindsay, and Alex all bringing something worthwhile to the high-profile audition process of The Glee Project, why not reward all four unknowns instead of handing out another gig to a Gwyneth Paltrow or a Charice or a John Stamos, right?

Glee Project’s Samuel Larsen on Christianity, Sexuality, and Cutting His Trademark Hair

The finale kicked off with a low-stakes homework assignment in “Glee-ality” that involved the final four — backed by their eight fallen comrades — performing “Don’t Stop Believing.” Not knowing we were headed in a kumbaya direction, I wondered if Mr. Murphy’s presence so early in the episode — and with a bejeweled skull on his back, no less! — meant one of our final four would get booted before the video shoot, but nope, everyone moved on up, quite literally.

The week’s video shoot found The Glee Project Top 12 sent directly to the roof of a 35-story building to perform Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.” Once again, Samuel wasn’t immediately booted from the competition for wearing his hideous hot-pink shorts to choreography rehearsal, while vocal coach Nikki Anders continued her inexplicable tradition of going all weak-kneed over Damian’s slurry-gruff vocals. And then we got a moment of minor drama when Alex took an unnecessary dig at Samuel for generously warning his competitors to exercise caution on the tongue-twisting “come on and come on and come on” portion of the ditty. (Side note: I actually thought Emily and Marissa stood out in the finished video, but maybe it’s just because they were my favorites in the competition and went home too soon. Anyone else with me on this matter?)

Glee Project Winner Damian McGinty Talks Sinatra, Jane Lynch, and His Almost Elimination

As with the homework assignment, the video shoot seemed to play very little role in the judges’ final decision, and instead it came down to the “Sing for Ryan Murphy and the Judges” round, which was expanded to “Sing for Ryan Murphy and the Judges and the Bulk of The Glee Project Season 1 Mentors.” (Raise that Gospel hand, Jenna Ushkowitz!)

The added twist was that this time around, contestants chose their own numbers, instead of performing what was assigned to them by the judges.

Lindsay was pretty astonishing on “Gimme Gimme” (from Thoroughly Modern Millie), and while she’s had to fight the “unlikable, too-driven, inauthentic, shrew-diva” edit all season, there’s no denying she’s got a powerhouse instrument and knows how to imbue every line of a song with theatricality and meaning. By comparison, Damian’s “Beyond the Sea” felt a little lightweight (and a lot hammy) — as Nikki told him beforehand, dude is “not the best singer, dancer, or actor” — but he melted the judges’ hearts by dedicating his performance to booted buddies Hannah and Cameron. Plus, I suppose from a purely commercial standpoint, it won’t hurt the Glee franchise to add another cast member whose adorable grin and perfect tresses have the potential to move a serious number of lunchboxes and t-shirts and posters and Trapper-Keepers. (Ryan Murphy had better make good on that promise to have Brittany find his character’s Irish accent completely unintelligible.)

Alex, meanwhile, performed his Dreamgirls ditty outfitted in drag that was decidedly more Doubtfire than Priscilla, and while there’s no denying the kid can hit his notes, I just wish he wasn’t always using a blunt object to do it. (Note to Ian Brennan: If bravery is wearing a dour wig and an unflattering fuchsia cardigan, then let’s get Alex the medal of honor!)

Samuel’s “Jolene,” however, was the weakest vocal of the episode — and his occasional pronunciation of “Jaw-lene” did him no favors, if you ask me — but what bugged me most was his substitution of the line “do whatever you wanna do, Jolene” in place of “whatever you decide to do, Jolene.” Seriously, the entire song is a desperate plea begging Jolene not to take the protagonist’s man; suddenly instructing her — mid-song! — to simply do as she wishes just doesn’t make an iota of sense.

Ah well, who’s keeping score anyway? As Ryan Murphy reminded us, the final decision wasn’t based on “any of [the contestants’] individual talents, it’s about the needs of the show.”

And thus we got a winner. And a second winner. And two other lesser winners. Whether or not the Glee mothership will also win when Samuel, Damian, Lindsay, and Alex hop aboard this fall, well, only time will tell. But I could think of worse ways to end this diversionary summer Project.

And now I turn it over to you to hit the comments and share your thoughts on The Glee Project‘s entire freshman season and its conclusion. What did you think of the show? How about that surprise twist: Genuinely sweet or sickeningly so? Did the right people win? If not, who deserved the grand prize? Sound off below! And come back to TVLine tomorrow for my Q&As with Samuel, Damian, Lindsay, and Alex.