As the season goes, so goes the finale - or at least, that's the conclusion I reached after watching Wednesday's two-hour and ten-minute sendoff to "American Idol" Six, which ended with Jordin Sparks beating out beatboxin' Blake Lewis for the "Idol" crown, to the surprise of pretty much no one. Their Tuesday showdown drew 74 million votes, so clearly someone cared about the outcome - and the results show leading up to the big announcement was entertaining enough, offering more humor and high spirits than most the rest of the season's results programs. After Seacrest cracked open the envelope, confetti and tears fell, and everyone cheered, and 17-year-old Arizonan Sparks - the youngest "AI" winner yet - performed the "Idol" single in typically excellent, powerful voice. And yet the evening is already fading from my memory, making it both an extremely fitting metaphor for Season Six as a whole, and a far cry from last year's schizophrenic finale spectacular.
Now, granted, it's hard to compare anything on television with last year's finale, which was so off-the-wall it deserves its own category. (Hello, it made David Hasselhoff cry!) But all the same, it proved an "Idol" conclusion doesn't have to be suspenseful to be memorable: Even if it was clear Taylor Hicks would emerge victorious, the rest of the show was wacky enough to be entertaining through and through, full of bits about the contestants themselves. In short, it was, appropriately, a celebration of the season that was. (Also, it featured Prince. I mean, just with that alone, you've got a spectacle that's pretty hard to top. But I digress.)
On Wednesday's show, the contestants - the show's reason for being - often seemed like accessories when they should have been the main act. Even the visiting previous years' Idols got at least as much time to shine. "When we come back, your top 12," Seacrest said early in the show. "Your favorites are back with more than a few surprises." Surprises? What could they be, I wondered. Would Chris Sligh sport straight hair? Would Chris Richardson start singing in a rich baritone? Would Sanjaya take the stage wearing a dress? Oh, but no - the surprise (though likely not one Seacrest was referring to) was, in fact, how forgettable so many of the Final 12 turned out to be. Seeing the finalists take the stage reminded me of how the days of, say, Stephanie Edwards seemed eons ago. As easy as it would be to heap scorn on the contestants, though, I don't think they were really responsible for that problem - after all, we never got to know them in the first place, and that's the producers' fault.
But then, why tell us a bit more about the top 12, or reminisce about their "journeys," or pair more of them with an established artist when you can just pack the show with random performances by other singers? Not that all of these were bad Wednesday - I'm definitely not going to gripe about watching Tony Bennett deliver "For Once In My Life," with spare piano, bass and percussion accompaniment, and unexpectedly big notes at the end. Pure class.
But what purpose did such intrusions really serve? Just a few minutes in, Seacrest cut to the season's least enthusiastic guest coach, Gwen Stefani, performing her new single "4 In The Morning" from the road (seriously, did she, agree to be a coach if they agreed to show her on the finale? some sort of deal must have been cut here). The song's excellent, but if I wanted to hear it, I'd go to the concert or download it. Same with Green Day (whose former punk selves, I've got to believe, would have been at least slightly more hesitant about appearing on the most mainstream of TV programs). The African Children's Choir, meanwhile, was adorable, but did we need another reminder of "Idol Gives Back"? At least Bette Midler sang "Wind Beneath My Wings," one of those big, uplifting ballads that are readily at home in "Idol" land.
That said, the show offered glimmers of the "Idol" charm that's wooed viewers over the years. Blake and Jordin's duet to the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," at the very beginning of the night, is what "American Idol" is all about - two fresh-faced young people cheerfully singing a classic tune. I thought the Top Six guys also harmonized rather beautifully, wearing white suits and singing with Smokey Robinson. The Top Six girls' performance with Gladys Knight wasn't quite as seamless or as interesting, but also went off decently.
As is perhaps in keeping with his personality, Blake's majorly energetic beatbox session with veteran rapper Doug E. Fresh was definitely one of the strangest, least melodic and yet still successful performances in "Idol" history, and Jordin's duet with Ruben Studdard showcased her rich voice. It didn't take long for Melinda to return to her gospel roots, as she sang with BeBe and CeCe Winans. And, well, what can a sane person - a category I sure hope I fall into - really say about Sanjaya performing "You Really Got Me," with Aerosmith's Joe Perry on guitar (the kid's not exactly Steven Tyler, eh, Joe)? Do you mention the wind machine blowing hair? The rock-god pose at the end, when he flung out his arms? Or do you just smile a little and shake your head? I'll leave it up to you, but add - what does it say about this season that only Melinda, Blake, Jordin and Sanjaya got to perform separately?
In winning, Jordin joins a franchise that's already become strangely self-perpetuating - as we saw on Wednesday's show, which featured performances from four of the five previous "Idol" winners. Kelly Clarkson - who was waaaay perkier the last time she strode the "Idol" stage - performed her hard-edged current single, "Never Again," in fine blues-rock voice. Carrie Underwood reprised her rather lifeless cover of "I'll Stand By You," making Wednesday the third time this season someone on "Idol" has performed the song. (I must say, I preferred Gina Glocksen's version, which possessed an urgency Carrie's lacked.) And then, later in the show, out onto the stage popped Taylor Hicks, who captured the crown on that very stage the year before. Unlike Carrie and Kelly, who received glowing introductions that detailed their many accomplishments, Taylor just sort of arrived, performing his current single, "Heaven Knows," with the same strong voice and soul influences that helped him win last year - but haven't helped him much as far as sales are concerned. Not that he appeared terribly bothered by that as he shimmied and twirled and leapt around in typically entertaining Taylor fashion, and then whipped out a harmonica. I was sure glad to see the gray-haired dude, but unlike last year, the crowd didn't really seem to be terribly into him, and he also left the stage with fairly minimal fanfare.
As the night wore on and 10 p.m. neared, I wondered when Seacrest planned on getting around to the results. Instead, the past year's Idol's slogged their way through a Beatles medley that had become pretty boring (special thanks to Carrie Underwood for that, on "She's Leaving Home") until this year's finalists joined the proceedings, arriving to sing "With A Little Help From My Friends." In an endearing moment of genuine happiness, the likes of which often proved elusive this season, the Top 12 and the former "Idol" champs joined together to sing the classic tune, finishing together - and, perhaps, pointing the way towards the show's future.
Random celebrities/Idol types spotted in the audience: Teri Hatcher and her daughter, Jerry Springer (?!) sitting in front of Jeff Foxworthy, Jennifer Hudson, Ace Young. I also think I saw Justin Guarini and Brittany Murphy (not together, I mean), but I can't be sure. (I know there were others, but I'm currently drawing a blank.) Alas, though, I saw no signs of The Hoff (or his tears) this time around.
Now, that's not very nice for the "nice" judge: Did Paula really make the "L" for loser sign with her hand when Seacrest introduced her? I could have sworn I saw it...
Seacrestian wit and wisdom (if you don't consider the very idea oxymoronic, that is...): Say what you will about Wendesday's show, but at least Seacrest represented in top form, tossing off one-liners with aplomb. Among them:
Randy, about five minutes into the show: "Who's gonna (win), Ryan? Call it!"
Seacrest: "If I do it now, I'll be in big trouble!"
A few minutes later...
Seacrest: "Simon, you already look bored."
Simon: "That's because I'm listening to you."
Seacrest, after Kelly Clarkson performed her current single, the pissed-off "Never
Again": "Would not want to be that 'Never Again' guy."
Seacrest, to Margaret Fowler, the heavyset audition-week novelty who dressed in more yellow than Big Bird, said "ye-eah!" like Lil' Jon's cousin and took home the "Golden Idol" statuette for "Best Presentation": "What's that in your hand?"
Fowler: "Just a little poem, 'cause you know I'm a poem writer, don't you, Simon?"
Seacrest: "Also known as a poet."
Seacrest, right after Blake and Doug E. Fresh's beatboxing extravaganza: "Ah, yes, just like the days of Justin and Kelly."
"Golden Idol" winner Sholandric Stallworth, a.k.a. the guy who sings really loud and extremely out of tune, as he received his trophy: "Does this have my name on it?"
Seacrest: "Sorry, it's a low-budget show."
Very nice, very nice! "High-five, I like that," Blake said Borat-style, as he and Jordin grinned and exchanged, yes, high-fives after receiving the keys to their new Mustangs.
(*cough*) Surely just a coincidence (*cough*): Oh, the producers so did not cut to a shot of BMG Music head honcho Clive Davis - who reportedly voiced harsh words and skepticism about Kelly Clarkson's upcoming album - after Clarkson performed "Never Again." But wait - they did.
Speaking of a Clive Davis smackdown: In a somewhat rambling speech that led up to his presenting Carrie Underwood with a framed photo commemorating the fact she'd sold 6 million albums, Davis mentioned all of the previous Idols and praised the teams that had helped them transition to the real world of music. But he doled out the highest praise to Carrie and Chris Daughtry. "So here's this year's report card for the 'American Idol' album franchise. The big news has been the huge explosion of Chris Daughtry," he said, going on to mention that Daughtry had sold 2.5 million albums, making the self-titled disc the best-selling of the year. Oh, Taylor Hicks, I know, I know, I feel for you, too.
That's achievement for ya: Kenneth Briggs, a.k.a. the, uh, strange, wide-eyed Seattle auditioner Simon ridiculed as a "bush baby," was back Wednesday and said he was fine with Cowell's criticism. "You know what, Simon, if you hadn't said what you said, I wouldn't he where I'm at," he said. Yes, standing on the American Idol stage accepting a meaningless award...after appearing on Jimmy Kimmel, and at the Super Bowl and Grammys and then returning to obscurity. Incidentally, I had no idea there actually was such a thing as a "bush baby," but apparently there is, and it's a jungle creature with, yes, really huge eyes. According to Seacrest, the show has sponsored one in Milwaukee on Briggs' behalf, and yep, it's named Simon.
Not exactly Luke Skywalker: "In a world where men fade into obscurity, true visionaries seize the day and shape our future," the "Idol" voice-over said as that song from "2001: A Space Odyssey" played and photos of historic world leaders flashed on the screen. "Now, another comes forth. One with the courage to embrace his destiny. One who stands firm in the face of adversity. There's been hysteria, but never like this. He is, in one word, Sanjaya Malakar. Sorry, that's two words. And here he is, performing live with Joe Perry of Aerosmith."
How can the "Idol" powers that be improve the show for next year? This year, "AI" in part fell victim to inflated expectations - and, perhaps, an overly confident sense of self. Though I'm no television wizard, as a longtime "Idol" watcher, I'd definitely offer these suggestions to restore viewers' confidence:
- It's the contestants, stupid. At its heart, "American Idol" is a sort of narrative that lives and dies on the strength of its characters - that is, the contestants. People watch to follow their journeys, their transformation, their singing, their personalities. So cut the gimmicks, rein in the product placement and limit the times established artists take to the "Idol" stage to hawk their new songs or albums. Then, pick an awesome Top 24 and help us get to know them.
- Cut the filler. See above, to an extent. For instance: Hourlong results shows? No thanks. Hourlong results shows where we learn nothing about the contestants and have to watch pre-taped performances by random, current pop stars? Quadruple no thanks.
- Expand the themes. "AI" themes ought to give contestants room to roam, not a straitjacket. But with narrowly constructed performance shows devoted to such hard-to-sing artists as the Bee Gees and Diana Ross, what's an "Idol" contestant to do? This year's crop had a hard time figuring out, and our eyes and ears can vouch for us there.