Critic's Notebook: 'American Idol' Finale Reminds Viewers Why the Show Mattered

American Idol finished its15th and "farewell" (not "final") season on Thursday (April 7) with a little something for everybody. 
There were dozens of performances, from Idol veterans both recognizable and confusing, categorized in ways that made a lot of sense, a little sense and no sense at all.
There were cameos from people both extremely memorable and not the least bit memorable in American Idol lore.
There was a result which must've made collective "America" pleased, but ticked off my Twitter feed and was certainly the wrong choice in my opinion.
And we got a twist. Kinda. Ryan Seacrest finished things up with an initially heartfelt, "And one more time... This is so tough... We say to you from Hollywood... Good night, America..." Then, after a cutaway, Seacrest added (possibly pre-recorded), "For now."
So let's work backward: American Idol isn't done. Of course American Idol isn't done. Last night's episode drew over 9 million viewers and did a 2.2 rating among adults 18-49 and in live-plus-same-day ratings. There's still money in those numbers. Heck, there would still be money in those numbers for Fox except that you can't take a step back from the size of production in its current form without taking a pause, a hiatus, a vacation. I've always assumed that Idol would take a leave of a few years and then return to Fox, but maybe it won't wait that long and maybe it'll find some other odd place to go, whichever streaming platform or service could get the most use out of that wave of hype. Will it have J.Lo and Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban as judges and Ryan Seacrest as a host if it comes back on Crackle or or YouTube or Spike or Netflix or Apple TV? Probably not, but Kimberly Caldwell and Justin Guarini would be a fine start to a judging panel and I bet they'd sign on. So even after two hours of "So long, farewell, it's been swell," Idol couldn't just let us have our closure. 
Continuing backwards...
La'Porsha Renae was this season's best vocalist. By a lot. La'Porsha was the season's best singer on the first day and she was the best on the last day. However, if any contestant actually did exhibit growth through this year's truncated process, it was Trent, he of the Hollywood Round mononucleosis and all-too-distracting facial and vocal affectations. I'm not convinced that La'Porsha or Trent will sell albums, but an Idol winner hasn't sold albums since Phillip Phillips. 
But congratulations to Trent Harmon, the 15th winner of American Idol, but definitely not the last.

Watching all of the contestants this season talking about growing up with Idol and referring to this as their last chance to be a part of this unique experience was touching, but the season was a consistent reminder that even if live-plus-same-day ratings remained unembarrassing, Fox wasn't making a mistake in pulling the plug, if only for now. After making an early announcement that the season would end in April, Idol struggled to find a format that made sense and nearly every episode was a nightmare of pacing and dramatic anti-climaxes. 
The Top 24 was glutted with young teens who might have been told, "Come back next year," if there had been a next year. And with early double-eliminations slashing the field at an accelerated rate, we lost the ability to watch singers grow across a season. The judges became caught up in the "This is the end..." emotion and they uniformly stopped critiquing fairly early on, even the reliably musically erudite Harry Connick Jr. Singers who, in different years, might have benefited from more nurturing and critiquing — I'm thinking of Lee Jean or MacKenzie Bourg, who became too quickly repetitious, or Dalton Rapattoni and his limited vocal range — were coddled and then dismissed. A lot of the traditional Idol journey and growth was lost in the race to the end, though Trent came closest, so let's pretend that's what we were rewarding tonight and not just giving the Idol prize, once again, to a white guy with a guitar, even if Trent only played the guitar once or twice this season.
Continuing backwards through the finale notables...
We were all glad to have Simon Cowell back for one last glimpse at his chest hair and a touching reminder of the loopy chemistry he shared with Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. Every former Idol judge made an appearance on Thursday's finale, with Nicki Minaj, Ellen DeGeneres and Steven Tyler sending videos and Kara DioGuardi even getting to perform. OK, maybe Mariah Carey didn't return in any form, but we can't be 100 percent sure that Mariah actually remembers her time on Idol, wants to remember her time on Idol or was told that Idol was ending.
Brian Dunkleman showed up, which was gratifying. William Hung and that "Pants on the Ground" guy showed up, which I guess served some purpose for somebody. Would I have given up the three or four minutes wasted on pointless memories of awful people in exchange for Ryan Seacrest bringing out a dozen of the longest-employed members of the Idol team to get recognition? Why... yes. I would have made that trade. Rickey Minor deserved one last name-check as did some stage managers, production designers, vocal coaches, etc. Some sort of notice for Michael Johns, who I believe is the only finalist to pass away, would have been respectful as well. 
Generally, though, the Idol finale did a spectacular job of showing how much talent has come through the doors over 15 seasons. I don't quite understand the rules for how the talent was showcased, but mostly listening to it was between "pleasant" and "totally entertaining." Yes, I get why Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood got the extended solo showcases and Carrie even got a bonus appearance with Keith Urban. I get and actually quite love the logic of bringing back the Three Divas — Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino and LaToya London — from the third season as a group. Obviously the non-Carrie country singers worked well together, even if we had to pretend that Ace Young and the ubiquitous Constantine Maroulis were country. The David Bowie tribute as a way to honor the show's "White Guy With Guitar" heritage was both funny and a very musical recognition of Bowie, even if that was a way of giving a bunch of winners a very little amount of screen time. The rockers and faux rockers (Constantine again) made another good segment, complete with on-stage explosions, even if recognizing short-haired Bo Bice was a challenge.

But then there was the question of what Kat McPhee was doing paired with Casey James. Or how Clark Beckham, Brandon Rogers, George Huff, Danny Gokey and Elliott Yamin became a Motown group. And Carly Smithson got a solo with a harp, Joshua Ledet slayed "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and Jessica Sanchez brought the big notes aplenty, but somehow Ruben Studdard got paired with Amber Holcomb on a brief duet? What gives?
I missed Haley Reinhart and Crystal Bowersox and Adam Lambert and don't necessarily know what they were up to tonight, though two of the three have been active Idol returnees in the past, so I'm guessing they were just booked elsewhere, I guess. But mostly the people I wanted to see return to the Idol stage came back and it was a reminder: Idol made stars. Scoff all you want. Be that guy who says "Only Carrie and Kelly are really superstars." Ignore the Grammys, the Oscar, the Tony nomination. Ignore the countless small and medium-sized venues that have been filled for 15 years by artists spawned by Idol. Ignore the dozens of Broadway and touring productions that have boosted ticket sales over 15 years by casting Idol veterans. The sarcastic rejoinder says something about Idol killing the music industry, but the reality is that the traditional music industry was in a period of transition before Idol showed up and would have undergone a transition without Idol. But over 15 years, Idol singers sold albums and iTunes downloads and anything it was possible for them to sell (and for well over 10 years, the show gave a forum to guest artists who benefited hugely from the promotion and exposure). And some of the singers Idol yielded are awful and some of them are great and a lot of them are reasonably talented people somewhere in the middle and that's not so bad for 15 years of talent search. 
The show took up a lot of Fox's schedule, but it also created a ripple of success that either boosted the few shows capable of airing after it or allowed less successful shows to continue to air because Fox was making profit off of Idol. Idol was only occasionally a good lead-in and plenty of shows, some quite decent, aired in Idol proximity and died quickly. But Bones, House, Fringe and Arrested Development are just a few of the shows that either directly benefited from Idol or got extra episodes because Fox's need for an immediate infusion of ratings was never the emergency that it might otherwise have been. 
And as Idol reminded us tonight, the Idol Gives Back specials raised $185 million for charities. There are a lot of very successful and long-running scripted and unscripted hits that never bothered to do anything that directly altruistic. 
Personally, American Idol has been inextricably linked to the 13+ years I've spent writing about television. One of the first assignments I ever received as a full-time TV reporter was recapping the second group of semifinalists in the show's second season, an episode that featured Hadas, Jacob Smalley and also Ruben Studdard, Kimberly Locke and, eventually advancing as a wild card, Clay Aiken. I recapped every episode that season and the 12 following seasons and I can pinpoint and explain each of the fewer-than-half-dozen episodes I failed to write about in that time. There are songs that are classics that I've ceased to associate with their original artists and that now exist for me largely in terms of their American Idol interpretations and random awful songs that pop up in karaoke that I'm disturbed to realize I know only because of Idol. I've written more words in my career about American Idol than any other show, probably 20 or 30 times more. 
Idol was a hit. Take it for all in all, we shall not look upon its like again.