A stay-at-home celebration is not what anyone involved with American Idol ordered off the menu, be they contestants, judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan or host Ryan Seacrest. Still, 2020 threw the world a curveball, and so here we are.
As Ryan states, this is the first time in the series’ storied history that a winner will be crowned from afar. The evening kicks off with the Top 7 being chopped down to the Top 5 after last week’s vote.
Dillon James, Jonny West, Arthur Gunn, Just Sam and Francisco Martin all have the good fortune to march on through and perform two more times this evening. We say goodbye, then, to Staten Island songbird Julia Gargano and Philly (by way of the UK) pizza delivery guy Louis Knight.
For the remaining handful of contestants’ first performances, they’re tasked with choosing a celebratory song for the day when self-quarantining is no longer a part of our daily lives. Dillon goes with Eric Clapton’s Babyface-produced 1996 smash “Change the World.” Lionel raves, “Your vocal performance that time around was absolutely stellar.”
Round two exposes the fact that, given the current state of things, there perhaps was no time for a hired songwriter to whip together an original tune to be the eventual winner’s coronation song. The contestants therefore are asked to perform a song they’d like to be their first single, if they’re the last one standing. Dillon goes with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which we previously saw him perform in Hawaii.
Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge the fact that Luke Bryan called Francisco a top five contestant during the California native’s audition way back in yonder times. The 19-year-old’s confidence has grown since then, as evidenced by his top-notch performance of Harry Styles’ “Adore You.”
In the second round, Francisco gives his take on Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska.” Katy says, “It sounded like it was professionally recorded in a studio somewhere.” Proud scholar Lionel channels his school principal mother when he tells Francisco, “You have been a model student, my friend… You have delivered the goods on graduation day.”
Next up is Just Sam, who opted to tough it out in a rented Los Angeles apartment during the stay-at-home order, rather than return to her grandmother’s home in New York City. Her song for when this COVID craziness is over is Kelly Clarkson’s pop anthem “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” and Katy, in her daisy-print dress, is feeling the positivity all around. “You’re never gonna go back to singing on the subway unless you wanna go back and just do it for fun,” the blonde-coiffed judges tells Sam. Lionel adds, “Our little girl has grown up!”
Just Sam ups the positive vibes with her Round 2 take on Andra Day’s “Rise Up.” Luke tells her the song was built for her and notes that he’s glad to hear her do it one more time. Lionel gushes, “As far as I’m concerned, you’ve won in life.”
Arthur has been compared to last year’s standout runner-up Alejandro Aranda a lot this season, but tonight he finally makes his own mark. First he tears through Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be.” It’s good stuff — or, as Katy puts it, “You are leaving it all on the living room floor!” But Arthur saves the best for last.
He later serves up a knockout reimagining of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” As Luke points out, it’s the third time he’s performed the song on the show, and each time he’s put a different spin on it.
Tonight’s moody, rock-heavy rendition has Lionel declaring, “Arthur, you are an absolute star!” Katy says, “Listen, I don’t know what pill you took for today’s performances, but in my opinion you took the winning pill! If you win, I think you should put out that version of the song, because it was tremendous.”
Just an observation: Noticeably absent from Jonny West’s recent segments is girlfriend Margie Mays, who was usually glued to his side, thus still getting a fair share of camera time despite being eliminated during Hollywood Week. For the first two weeks of live performances, Jonny stayed with Margie in her Studio City, California apartment. Last week, however, he announced that he’d decamped to his parents’ home in Murrieta. Hmmm.
At any rate, Jonny’s one-day-the-world-will-be-a-better-place tune of choice is James & Bobby Purify’s 1967 soul gem “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.” Katy is so impressed that she tells Jonny she knows she’ll be bumping into him backstage at music biz events in the future. In the second round, Jonny makes a ballsy selection of his own original, “Makin’ Love,” which you may recall as his Idol audition song. Katy says she wants Mark Ronson to produce it, should Jonny be crowned the winner.
The rest of the performances
With the contestants’ duties done and their fates left up to America’s vote, the second hour is devoted to a flurry of remote performances by various folks. Luke Bryan treats the world to the cheeseball spectacle of him grinning and dancing his way through “One Margarita.” When Ryan Seacrest asks Luke to wax philosophical on the song, Luke complies: “It’s a drinkin’ song, Ryan.”
Later, long-since-ousted contestant Doug Kiker returns to croon “Bless the Broken Road” along with Rascal Flatts. Next, Just Sam is joined by Lauren Daigle for a performance of the latter’s breakout hit “You Say.”
Then, Katy Perry dodges animated household objects while belting out her just-released single “Daisies.” This is followed by Tony winner/Academy Award nominee Cynthia Erivo doing a medley of Aretha Franklin classics like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” and “Chain Of Fools” with the Top 11 Idol contestants on backup.
And the winner is…
In the last minutes of the season, Arthur Gunn and Just Sam are announced as the final two contestants. Ryan stares at his screen showing the now-axed Jonny West, Francisco Martin and Dillon James, but nobody says anything. A few painfully slow seconds tick by.
Is it just me, or is something noticeably off with this whole thing? For one, Ryan appears to be confused after looking at the results, and then he looks into the camera with a seemingly dazed expression.
In the end, Ryan announces Just Sam as the winner of American Idol 2020. We briefly see Arthur Gunn jumping up and down with his family in celebration, and that’s that with him. A stunned Sam holds up an iPad with her grandmother on video chat and says, “My dreams have come true. My grandmother is good. Thank you so much, America!”
I’m getting worried about poor Ryan, but the show must go on. We’re presented with a pre-taped music video of sorts featuring Lionel Richie performing “We Are the World’ with such past American Idol contestants as Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Katharine McPhee, Jordan Sparks, Phillip Phillips, Scotty McCreery and Laine Hardy.
In the aftermath of the season closer, Twitter blows up with folks wondering if Ryan Seacrest is okay. Here’s hoping it was just technical glitches and the challenges of a from-afar finale that were throwing him and not something more serious. (For the record, he also didn’t appear on Live With Kelly and Ryan the next morning, with Mark Consuelos filling in for him.)
On a final note, Idol, it was announced on-air tonight, will be back next year for its fourth installment on ABC. Until then, stay safe out there, kids. You too, Ryan.