In the season finale, after some truly memorable performances by contestants past and present, David Cook is announced as the winner

”Idol” recap: A happy ending

It took 4 months, 42 episodes, 24 semifinalists, 3 intermittently infuriating judges, a small army of Swaybots, a handful of botched lyrics, 97.5 million votes, and one particularly soul-crushing bit of promotion on behalf of Mike Myers’ latest (alleged) comedy, but American Idol‘s seventh season has finally come to an end.

Yet as much as I’m filled with relief, as much as my last few weeks have been dominated by dreams of leisurely Tuesday and Wednesday nights spent cooking gourmet meals, reading stacks of new books, maybe even leaving the house and (gasp!) catching a summer blockbuster or two, tonight’s stellar season finale made me a little wistful. Actually, if I’m being completely honest, shortly after dabbing the tears from my eyes over David Cook’s undeniably touching victory — and after fielding a phone call from my happily married sister, who is nonetheless planning her wedding (!) to the season 7 champ — I grabbed the calendar off my wall and did some deeply dorky calculations.

Yes, fellow Idoloonies, only 237 days (by my best calculations) till the start of season 8!

Okay, okay, that was uncalled for and unacceptable. But admit it: You’re kind of excited. And despite all the irritations and indignities of the season — the blatant producer manipulation, the fusty theme nights and mentors, the Paulagate incident (and lack of follow-up apology), Randy’s excruciatingly limited vocabulary, the too often inexplicable order of contestant elimination — you’re probably not going to follow through on your annual resolution to ”never watch another episode of this damn show ever again!”

Because, on nights like tonight, when Idol gets it mostly right, it’s a beautiful distraction from the mundane concerns of our workaday lives, from our laundry lists of tasks not yet finished (or perhaps not even started), from the relentless weight of our current news headlines. (Raise your hand if George Michael’s glorious ”Praying for Time” struck a chord.)

Of course, for the first 20 minutes or so of tonight’s show, I worried that Nigel Lythgoe had learned nothing from season 6’s disastrous season finale. That opening shot of David Cook and David Archuleta, dressed in white and engaged in a tense face-off, was so bogus that the usually shame-retardant Ryan Seacrest even sounded a little embarrassed as he approached the two finalists and declared, ”This…is the American Idol season finale!” (And in the process, deprived us for the second straight night of his trademark straight-up ”This…is American Idol!” Tell me I’m not the only one who wanted to hear it one more time during this calendar year.)

No less excruciating was the opening musical number, a brutal mash-up of this year’s 12 Idol finalists, a pack of So You Think You Can Dance hoofers, and the Temptations’ ”Get Ready.” What with everyone dressed in white and dashing to and fro all over the stage, the rapid-fire (and generally shoddy) camera work, and the presence of those blasted Swaybot hands in the foreground, I couldn’t get my bearings, and was left feeling physically and emotionally woozy.

And while the two Davids’ duet on Chad Kroeger’s ”Hero” served as an inoffensive palette cleanser, nothing could prepare me for the bile and ipecac cocktail that was the extended advertisement for Mike Myers’ movie The Love Guru.

NEXT: The also-rans step forward

Now let me get this straight for a second. There was no time in tonight’s telecast for, say, a 90-second solo (or duet) spot for Kristy Lee Cook, Ramiele Malubay, Chikezie, Amanda Overmyer, or David Hernandez, and yet Myers got to dress up as ”Guru Pitka” and make an absolutely stomach-turning remark about 17-year-old contestant David Archuleta growing ”hair in weird and wonderful places.” Are you freakin’ kidding me?

The Love Guru shtick was an affront to Idol viewers not just because it was less funny than a steel-toed boot to the throat — did Myers pick that ”winner’s name will be David” line off Seacrest’s scrap heap of rejected cue cards? — but because we all know Fox is already generating massive revenues from its ad spots, from sales of the finalists’ current and future releases, and from all the relentless product placement for Ford, iTunes…actually, let me not continue their work for them, right?

On a similar note, let’s all make a vow right here, right now: Boycott The Love Guru, opening June 20 nationwide! (The only way I’ll go is, perhaps, for an installment of PopWatch’s ongoing series. See how my love for you extends beyond the Idol season?)

Thankfully, the awful opening 1,200 seconds of the show quickly gave way to a series of musical performances that were so splendid that, honestly and truly, I kept forgetting that the point of the telecast was to crown one of the Davids as King of the Nokia.

There was the season’s uncontested fashion champion, Syesha Mercado, resplendent in a sexy gray dress, holding her own alongside Seal on his recent single ”Waiting for You.” Yeah, the sound mix was a little janky, and there were shades of Elliott Yamin’s season 5 performance with Mary J. Blige (where the young Idol contestant seemed excessively deferential to the more famous duet partner), but no matter. It was nice to see Syesha have her moment and prove her voice need not (and should not) be slapped with a ”Theater!” stamp and shipped off to Broadway (or whatever port the current touring company of Chicago will arrive at next).

Perhaps even more impressive, Syesha managed to outshine the slightly unsteady Donna Summer as they played pass the mike during the ladies’ rendition of ”Last Dance.” (Anyone else wonder about the decision to introduce the disco legend by having a pair of dudes walk her, invalid-style, down that long flight of stairs, rather than have her simply emerge more gracefully from the wings?) And while the Summer medley wasn’t particularly thrilling, I did get a momentary rush of giddiness hearing Amanda Overmyer wrap her husky growl around the opening verse of ”Hot Stuff.”

Still, for my money, the night’s most delightful pairing had to be Brooke White and Graham Nash on ”Teach Your Children.” Sitting on a stool, barefoot, strumming her guitar and harmonizing with a folk-rock legend, the G-rated nanny looked and sounded completely in her element, and her post-performance exclamation of ”Graham Nash, wow!” was as genuine a moment as Idol has seen all season. After several weeks of watching Brooke’s confidence falter under the competitive pressure of the Idol juggernaut, resulting in her eventual fifth-place finish, it was especially satisfying to see her re-emerge tonight as a soulful artist performing music for the simple joy of it.

NEXT: The finalists play frontman

Similarly, while Jason Castro got a slightly dismissive intro from Ryan (something about his lack of interview skills, followed by a throwaway comment about his ”pleasant” performances) and some utterly bizarre camera angles (cue Nigel directing his crew to shoot the dreadlocked dude from behind, and at a distance of no less than 200 paces), his repeat performance of ”Hallelujah” was (amazingly enough) even more touching than his wondrous version from week 3 of the semifinals. I kinda wished Idol had hooked Jason up with a worthy duet partner, or encouraged him to choose a new and unexpected song for the season finale, but in the end, I was cheering as hard in my living room as Melinda Doolittle and Teri Hatcher did at the Nokia.

But wait! Like a late-night infomercial, there was more! I reveled in the pairing of Rocker David with ZZ Top on the latter’s ”Sharp Dressed Man,” especially seeing how the one-time shlubby bartender has slowly emerged as this season’s most stylish male contestant. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening every time the ZZ Top dudes leaned into their mikes (and seemingly muttered some syllables out of time with the music) but Cookie’s spot-on vocals (and his goofy Charleston dance) were fantastic.

And as much time as I spent this season questioning whether Little David would be capable of making a record that could get airplay outside the lightest of Lite FM stations, the kid seemed to finally find his niche doing a lot of the heavy lifting on OneRepublic’s ”Apologize.”

Oh, and speaking of airplay, who else wants Carly Smithson and Michael Johns to head to the studio — without passing ”go” and without collecting $200 — to record their bluesy rendition of ”The Letter”? The two foreign-born contestants, who dominated the preseason ”semipro” conversation, and who sometimes struggled to find their musical personas during their Idol journeys, created some serious heat together tonight — and not just because Carly’s armor-esque minidress and Michael’s black suit were among the show’s sartorial highlights. Michael clearly benefits when he infuses his standard rock sound with a little bit of soul. And freed from the need to seek Daddy Simon’s approval, Carly looked and sounded like she was having the time of her life, instead of trying to prove to all of us that she was having the time of her life. (Which gets me thinking: Carly and Michael doing ”(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life,” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack — 2009 chart-topper?)

What’s that? I just typed the term ”chart-topper” at the 1,500-word mark of tonight’s column, and I still haven’t really talked about David Cook getting 56 percent of the vote, and thereby positioning himself as Idol‘s male answer to Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood?

We’ll get there, not to worry. But not before we discuss how Carrie somehow made that sleeve-connected contraption look sexy while absolutely nailing the very sexy single ”Last Name.” (Am I actually considering downloading a country track? Survey says: Possibly!) Given the subject matter, perhaps Carrie should’ve been wearing red, but then again, there wasn’t a lot of white, or much material of any kind, on that dangerously short skirt, now was there?

NEXT: The right David wins

Not faring quite as well in the Idol champions department was Jordin Sparks, who seemed to struggle with the quick cadence of ”One Step at a Time,” a composition that I’d place somewhere between ”Dream Big” and ”In This Moment” as examples of radio-ready songwriting. That said, Jordin looked adorable (as usual), and seeing season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis mouthing the words to his one-time rival’s song gives me one more reason to plug his sadly underappreciated album Audio Day Dream. (As for that Disney ”Idol Experience” Jordin was plugging, let’s hope it involves a cranky British person hurling cruel barbs at delusional children, prompting them to focus on their studies and quit thinking that fame belongs on a list with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.)

Well, in the case of David Cook, actually, it does. Fifty-six percent of the 97.5 million votes, and yet somehow the resident rocker dude didn’t let the rush go to his head. I loved the way he stepped back and momentarily turned the spotlight to Archie, who handled his runner-up finish with equal class, disappearing into a huddle of his fellow finalists and allowing Rocker David to begin the season 7 victory ballad (title irrelevant), which contained the words ”magic rainbow.” (Oy!)

No matter that the song put the ”eek” in ”weak.” I was too busy getting choked up watching a grown man break down in tears of joy, watching his mom beam as if someone had just run a kilowatt of electricity through her internal filament, watching his brother — the one who was supposed to be trying out for Idol in the first place — tearfully mouth the words ”that’s my brother” into the camera. Heck, even The Practice‘s Camryn Manheim approved! And Simon Cowell himself apologized for ”verging on disrespectful” with the way he downplayed Cookie’s terrific Tuesday-night performances.

Still, as much as Rocker David’s win warmed my heart, I got an even bigger charge seeing him surrounded by his 11 fellow finalists on the platform behind the judges. There was David Hernandez, the undeniably handsome fella who had whispered the word ”naked” with such unabashed cheesiness during the George Michael medley. And Chikezie, who had approached the night’s group performances like a shy family member suddenly getting his freak on on the dance floor at your cousin’s wedding. And Amanda Overmyer, stoic to the end, just the way you wanted her to be. And Kristy Lee Cook, unstoppable country crooner, the woman who kinda sorta won me over even after putting ”Eight Days a Week” through the musical meat grinder. Whether you loved ’em, downloaded ’em, or trash-talked ’em on our message boards, the whole delicious smorgasbord of a season wouldn’t have been the same without ’em.

The fact that the right singer took home the big prize, well, that was just gravy.

Oh, and speaking of tasty treats, keep an eye out for the Idolatry season finale (coming Friday to Plus, we’ll have Idolatry interviews with Syesha and the two Davids going live on our site next week, which should help you all survive one additional week on the road to season 8. Until then, thanks for your passionate, hilarious, and occasionally scary message-board postings, and for taking this ride with me for the fourth consecutive season. To paraphrase Ryan Seacrest, our journeys end tonight!

But first, tell us what you thought of tonight’s show. Were there any performances that took you by surprise (either positively or negatively)? How does this season’s winner stack up compared with Idols past? Did anyone catch Cookie’s extra-exposed midriff as the credits rolled? And what the heck did the Jonas Brothers have to do with anything? Seriously!

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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