'American Idol' crowns its Season 18 winner during first at-home finale

It was a far cry from the glory days when Ryan Seacrest crowned Kelly Clarkson the first American Idol amid a storm of confetti 18 years ago, or the peak Season 10 finale, when Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and even U2’s Bono and the Edge performed live. But Sunday’s American Idol episode was, as Ryan put it, “one for the history books,” when Just Sam was declared this year’s winner during the series’ first-ever at-home finale.

It was an emotional night for the hard-luck Harlem subway singer, who unlike her fellow contestants — who returned home to their families after production was suspended this season due to coronavirus concerns — had to quarantine alone, far away from her beloved grandma. At one point, the loneliness and stress had even driven her to break down in sobs on the air. But she had nothing but happy tears this Sunday, as she cradled an iPad in her arms, FaceTiming with her elated grandmother back home.

“My dreams have come true… thank you so much, America,” said a shocked Sam. “I would have never, ever, ever expected this. Thank you, thank you, thank you for voting for me.”

“You're never going to go back to singing on the subway — unless you want to go and just, like, do it for fun,” said judge Katy Perry. “Your life has changed.”

Of course, the event was bound to be an anti-climactic end to this rushed, coronavirus-derailed season, with the contestants being whittled down from seven to five to two to one in the course of Sunday’s couple of hours. (The first two contestants to be eliminated at the top of show, based on their lackluster performances last week, were singer-songwriters and former frontrunners Louis Knight and Julia Gargano — both of whom probably would have fared better during a normal season, when they would have had time to evolve, as well as play their own originals.)

But after Just Sam and her fellow surviving finalists Arthur Gunn (who placed second), Dillon James, Francisco Martin, and Jonny West — all male singer-songwriters who seemingly canceled themselves out in the voting — competed one last time for America’s (or at least East Coast America’s) real-time online votes, Idol producers did their best to throw the best damn Zoom party they could under the circumstances. Along with performances by the judges, the finale featured several virtual superstar collaborations, by Rascal Flatts (with lovable garbage man Doug Kiker, who showed off his new teeth), Lauren Daigle (with Just Sam), and Cynthia Erivo (singing an Aretha Franklin tribute with the top 11).

Just Sam and the other finalists also joined the judges and Idol alumni Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Kellie Pickler, Katharine McPhee, Jordin Sparks, Lauren Alaina, Phillip Phillips, Laine Hardy, and Alejandro Aranda for a “We Are the World” performance to commemorate the anniversary of that USA for Africa charity single, which judge Lionel Richie co-wrote 35 years ago with Michael Jackson. I’d like to take a moment to point out that I first put this idea in Lionel’s head when I interviewed him at an Idol press event back in February — something he of course failed to mention on Sunday’s telecast. But hey, I am glad he heeded the advice, because it was a nice, feel-good moment.

Anyway, for their final performances, the top five were asked to pick the song they would “celebrate with when this crisis is over.” This understandably led to most of them going with bouncy, uptempo numbers — which, frustratingly, didn’t showcase most of them at their best or create the sort of finale breakout that they needed during such a close race. This would have been the night to do a heart-on-sleeve ballad, so the celebratory theme was probably why some of them ultimately fell short of making the top two.

For their second attempts, each contestant performed his or her prospective debut single. However, with the exception of one contestant, these were not originals but “familiar songs from the show that struck a chord with the fans early on.” No traditional coronation single for Just Sam may hurt her chances for a career after the show (we all remember what a launching pad “Home” was for Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips), but at least this segment gave all five contestants the opportunity to properly throw down the gauntlet.