American Idol Season 12 Finale Recap: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Finalists [Updated]

american-idol-candice-kree-winner“Either way, we’re gonna celebrate tonight.”

With six simple words, Kree Harrison summed up what most American Idol fans have been feeling for the last fortnight. I mean, seriously, once we got down to what Loleatta Holloway once referred to as “the reeeeeallll nitty gritty” of the competition — by which I mean a righteous Top 3 of  Candice Glover, Kree and third-place finisher Angie Miller — how could you really be too upset about where the chips ended up falling?

Oh sure, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe stacked the Top 20 deck with powerhouse ladies and guys with questionable voter appeal in his effort to get a female winner. But as the kind of lunatic who’s watched every single episode of Idol since Kelly Clarkson was just a Texas waitress in a dress she made out of an old pair of jeans, I’d go so far as to say any single member of the Season 12 Top 5 would’ve been a worthy addition to the undeniably awesome list of the franchise’s champions: Kelly, Ruben, Fantasia, Carrie, Taylor, Jordin, David, Kris, Lee, Scotty and Phillip. From where I sit, that’s a pretty darn good season.

RELATED | American Idol: 30 Best Performances of All Time

Sure, that’s easy for me to say in retrospect since my No. 1 and No. 2 favorite contestants made it all the way to the final round. Candice had a hold on my heart from her Season 11 Vegas Round trio with Deandre Brackensick and Jessica Sanchez, then confirmed my obsession with her torrid “Syrup & Honey” Season 12 audition, her Group Round “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!),” and an incredible string of live performances that stacks up pretty well against any singer who’s ever taken the Idol stage: “Ordinary People,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” “Come Together,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Lovesong,” “Straight Up” “When I Was Your Man,” “You’ve Changed,” “Next to Me,” “Somewhere,” “I Am Beautiful,” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” a capella reprisal. #POW (That was for you, Mariah.)

RELATED VIDEO | Idol‘s Amber Holcomb on Her Almost-Didn’t-Happen Streisand Cover, ‘Young Whitney’ Comparisons and ‘Boo-Boo Trash’ Lower Register

Kree Harrison’s Greatest Season 12 Hits was a damn fine compliation, too, starting with her Hollywood solo on “Stars,” and continuing with “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song),” “Stronger,” “Evidence,” “Crying,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “See You Again,” “Here Comes Goodbye,” “All Cried Out,” and her “Up to the Mountain” reprisal.

RELATED | American Idol Performance Finale Recap: Yes It’s Ladies’ Night and the Feeling’s Right

Of course, just because we wound up with two incredible finalists isn’t to say Season 12 didn’t have its deep, deep valleys. Too much focus on the judges and the kind of petty slapfights that — at least in Casa Slezak — would result in a two-minute time out in the Naughty Chair. Too little innovation and not enough creativity in choosing fresh, exciting themes to challenge (but still bring out the best) in the contestants. Too many songs we’ve heard a dozen times before, too much micromanagement of the outcome, not enough “Contestant’s Choice,” and…oh LET ME QUIT RANTING AND GET TO THE RECAP.

Much like Season 12 itself, tonight’s two-plus-hour finale had its own highs (Janelle, Angie and Candice’s respective duets) and its baffling low points (a Mariah “hologram” performance; J.Lo squeaking the same song she’s released for six straight years; Aretha performing via…FaceTime? Skype? Wha?; Lazaro snapping his gum and trying to steal focus from the winner’s celebratory moment). So let’s break it all the way down (in chronological order)…

* After 12 seasons of Idol, I’m aware that it’s a tough task to sound-mix a big group number, but the way the backing track steamrolled the Top 10 singing “Glad You Came” made the performance feel as organic as a gallon of melted Velveeta (in a Styrofoam container). Why not just give the dancers the night off, have the finalists sit on stools and deliver a stripped-down version where we could hear their individual voices? Then again, witnessing Curtis Finch “shoot the peacock” while absolutely no sound came out of his mic, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise?

* It was nice how Mariah and Nicki’s season-long rivalry ended tonight with a game of “Whose Dress/Shoes Combo Will Make for a More Treacherous Walk From Backstage and to the Judges’ Table?” Somewhere, Gloria Steinem is shaking her head, dahhhling.

* I’m gonna come right out and say it: somewhere in the past three weeks, Janelle Arthur transformed herself from a really excellent American Idol finalist into a budding superstar. Her duet with The Band Perry on “Done” — damn, I am downloading that jam first thing tomorrow — was raucous, delightful, beautifully sung, fiercely choreographed/hair-eographed and downright incredible. I’m not sure if those firepots were meant to go off during the performance or if Janelle just activated ’em with all the heat of her performance. Major label execs: Sign this gal! (And if you have any doubts, listen to her original song “Young and Reckless,” then sign her.)

* I’ll admit I guffawed four or five times during the pre-taped comedy package about the Season 12 ladies sabotaging their male counterparts. Funniest bit: Janelle gleefully tampering with Lazaro’s sheet music so he’d miss the key change on “Close to You.” The final reveal of Jordin Sparks as the mastermind — pointing out that her task was made easier by the fact that none of the guys played guitar, and then reminding said dudes that “Idol leftovers” have been doing well on The Voice — was the whipped cream on the Frappuccino.

* I know the Top 5 guys got a lot of flack for their general lack of luster in Season 12, but alas, their work on that Frankie Valli medley didn’t do much to turn that perception around. Also, was it me or did it sound like a backing track kicked in and the guys’ mics got switched off once the 79-year-old legend took the stage and took over lead-vocal duty? Le sigh.

* Okay, let’s have an honest chat about Mariah Carey’s “performance.” I know it got pre-taped on Wednesday night. And I know some of her fans have taken to Twitter to say that she really and truly sang her medley of hits and that the producers of the show just did a bad job of “dubbing”/”cutting” the various shots and whatnot. But honestly, however you slice it, this was a failure of epic proportions. As Mariah stood immobilized by her long white gown, and cameras carefully cut to all of her most flattering angles, we heard what sounded like disembodied snippets of her greatest hits get carelessly patched together. Meanwhile, the Lady Carey’s mouth moved out of sync with the music, as if a film-school student had dubbed the performance in Korean, then Hebrew, then French and then (hastily) back into English. If she’d performed this on the Holodeck of the Enterprise, it would have somehow made sense, maybe? But seeing how this was her final act in a high-paying gig that had her judging the vocals, musicality and performance style of young singers who clearly look up to her, would it have been too much to ask for the woman to pick up a mic during the actual live telecast and simply sing? Hashtag: Lame. *And yes, I am holding her to a ridiculously high standard. SHE’S MARIAH FREAKIN’ CAREY!

* Anyone else find it slightly odd that, a mere week after Candice covered “Next to Me” on Top 3 performance night, that the producers had Amber Holcomb reprise it for the finale as a duet with the show’s new spirit animal Emeli Sandé? The gals sounded really solid together, but if I’m being honest, Amber looked reluctant to dig deep and connect with her major-label sparring partner. And that kinda bummed me out.

* Psy sang “Gentleman,” though I like his shtick better when he’s backed by dancing pistachios. (What? I’m trying to be nice for once.) Might’ve helped if he’d bothered to raise the microphone up to his lips every once in a while, though, no?

* Keith Urban broke out his new single “Little Bit of Everything.” And while it’s not exactly a game-changing kind of ditty, I love the fact that dude always comes off like he’d have just as much fun playing for some fireflies and junebugs next to some bonfire embers in the backyard as he does playing for an audience of (hopefully?) 15 million.

candice-glover-jennifer-hudson* I injured my hand pounding the side of my armchair (while whooping like an idiot) for the duration of Candice’s duet with Jennifer Hudson on “Inseparable.” (Can this collaboration PLEEEEEEASE be on Candice’s debut CD?) I didn’t even take notes while it happened because I threw my pen about 11 seconds in, and was not going to take my eyes off the screen anyhow. Candice’s clarity, her power, her phrasing, her internalization of the lyrics! J.Hud’s vibrato, her bombast, her grit, and her megawatt energy! You combine these things and it’s just…I mean…I don’t have the right superlatives to take you there. You just need to go to YouTube and watch it. But suffice to say when Nicki and Randy are waving their arms and having a musicgasm (gross, but true) in unison, that we’ve reached some God-just-brushed-your-arm-level SANGING.

angie-miller-adam-lambert* If that wasn’t enough for you, how about Angie, at the piano, lilting along to “Titanium,” and then the camera pans and there’s ADAM LAMBERT!? I loved the aching restraint the duo showed as they slowed David Guetta and Sia’s high-octane dance hit into an inspirational ballad. Adam, who we know from “Slow Ride” (take it EEE-ZAY!) is a generous duet partner, really allowed Angie to set the tone and grab more than her share of the juicy parts of “Titanium” — as it should be considering this is Angie’s season, y’know? (I did love when both of ’em unleashed in the final moments, though…good stuff.)

* Adam proved just as gracious when he stepped aside so Angie could share the stage with her idol Jessie J., who hopped across the pond from London for a last-minute throw-down with the gal who covered her four times this season. (I hope Angie gets a small percentage of Jessie’s 2013 U.S. sales, yes?) Their rendition of “Domino” was a frothy confection with spot-on vocals and a bit of amped-up drama at the ending. Even better for Angie? Jessie admitting that her appearance had prevented Angie from performing her debut single “You Set Me Free,” and agreeing to do a show with her in London this summer as a consolation prize. Um, who says finishing third is such a bad thing?

* Kree’s duet with Keith on “Where the Blacktop Ends” seemed, well, a little less well thought-out than Angie, Kree Candice and Janelle’s collaborations, perhaps? I mean, girlfriend was so fab all season, but never really gave any indication that an uptempo, beers-on-the-bar jam was her cup of mocha chocolata ya ya. Why couldn’t Uncle Nigel have brought in Bonnie Raitt or Susan Tedeschi or Carrie Underwood or Wynonna for Kreedom? Ah well, it was still a solid effort, even if Kree’s vocals seemed to get a tad lost in the mix.

* Idol said a formal farewell to Randy Jackson. And here, I say a formal good riddance! (That one was for Haley Reinhart, dawg! #NeverEverForget)

Aretha-Franklin-Idol* Um, so the legendary Aretha Franklin doesn’t like to fly. And so she appeared via satellite from New York to sing a medley of hits — did I mention I despise medleys, even when they are made up of some of the greatest soul songs ever? Meanwhile, the Top 5 girls — the people most responsible for the ad revenue Fox raked in on the show from January to May — stood underneath said screen and acted as background singers whose mics were set to “low.” (Maybe this is how Aretha ensures no up-and-coming divas make eye contact with her?) How this idea made its way from some associate producer’s brainstorming pitch to actualized seven-minute segment is as patently ridiculous as the sight of Devin Velez in leopard stretch pants with a “Nicki Minaj booty.”

* J.Lo showed off her world-class backside lip-sync skills on the same god-awful track. (Yes, of course Pitbull is on it!) (No, I didn’t think it was worth Googling the song title.) (AND NOBODY WANTS YOU BACK FOR SEASON 13, LADY!)

* All week long I’d been looking forward to a Candice Glover-Kree Harrison duet, and then they got stuck with “One Less Bell to Answer”/”A House Is Not a Home” — the same exact songs Candice sang with Amber back in Top 6 Week. WHY???? Fox’s reality chief Mike Darnell told me back in January that expense really isn’t an issue when it comes to song clearances, so again I ask, WHY??? Okay, the ladies sounded lovely as usual, but I feel like the selected tracks — and the fact that it was placed mere seconds before the winner’s announcement — robbed us of what should have been a true Season 12 moment.

You know what was a moment, though? Kree and Candice cradled in one another’s arms as Ryan Seacrest prepared to reveal the news for which we’d been waiting all night.

Candice-Glover-Confetti-ShowerTHE WINNER OF AMERICAN IDOL SEASON 12 IS…

Tears streamed down my face. I won’t even pretend that didn’t happen. Wow. This girl is on fire. She had come out with passion and ferocity from the moment she auditioned, and she never really lost focus. Watching her sob her way through her debut single “I Am Beautiful” underneath a confetti shower, well, it’s one of those Idol moments that make all the maddening production foibles and manipulations and treachery worth wading into. Hang onto that moment between now and January 2014 — and before you know it — we can all meet back up here for Season 13.

Thanks for all your fantastic, thoughtful comments here at TVLine all season long — and don’t forget — WE’LL HAVE VIDEO EXIT INTERVIEWS WITH CANDICE, KREE and ANGIE (plus, the season finale of Idology!) coming soon to this very Web site!

And with that, let me turn things over to you. Did America crown the right Season 12 champ? What were your favorite musical performances? And what changes do you want to see in Season 13? (Don’t front: You’re totally watching Season 13!) Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!