‘What just happened???’ ‘American Idol’s’ Final Judgment ends with crazy, unprecedented twist


The future of American Idol Season 18 remains in doubt, with production suspended due to coronavirus concerns. But voting has already begun, because for the first time in the series’ history, viewers have been tasked with choosing between two “Final Judgment” contestants.

On Sunday’s part two Final Judgment episode — which was shot at the Hawaiian resort Aulani during happier, pre-pandemic times, on Jan. 31 — we found out which of the remaining finalists would be rounding out this season’s top 20. Except… it was a top 21. It all came down to rival retro country girls Lauren Mascitti and Grace Leer, and the judges were deadlocked.

“Your performances last night, both of them were really great,” said Luke Bryan, the country music representative on the judging panel. “Lauren, you showed us this rocking side we haven’t seen, and Grace, [you were] really one of the winners of the night, in my opinion. We have one position left, and we couldn’t make a decision. … So, you guys aren’t out of the woods. We’re going turn it over to America.” Ryan Seacrest then revealed that public voting would open immediately following Sunday’s episode, based on the ladies’ Hawaii showcase performances.

“We’re sorry to extend your anxiety, but we love you both,” added Katy Perry, while Lauren and Grace held hands in a daze, trying to process this bombshell. “What just happened? This is insane!” the women gasped, as they stumbled off to tell their families the semi-good news.

Here’s some background for Idol newbies about how Final Judgment (also known as “The Green Mile” among superfans, because of the long walk contestants must make to learn their fate) usually works: It often ends with the last two hopefuls — similar contestants, fan favorites, and/or best buddies — taking that stressful walk together. Then one of those two singers is cut, right then and there. It makes for good TV, but it’s super-cringey and awkward to watch one survivor’s-guilt-racked contestant try to celebrate, while the hapless reject just sits there in tears. So, this top 21 situation is a little kinder, and it also gives viewers a chance to get invested early on — which is probably a good thing if this season is forced to take hiatus and lose momentum. However, two women are still being pitted against each other — and ultimately, one of them will still go home too soon.

Lauren Mascitti and Grace Leer get some shocking news on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Lauren Mascitti and Grace Leer get some shocking news on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)

I wish both women could have made it — there were some top 20 contestants, revealed both last week and this week, that I feel were less deserving. But if I’m casting my vote, I must go with Grace. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed Lauren’s rollicking cover of Emmylou Harris’s “Two More Bottles of Wine,” which felt like an old-school Opry performance. Lionel Richie at one point actually yelled out, “I like her!” — which is always a good sign, because likability, even more than vocal ability, is often the name of the game when it comes to Idol. I liked Lauren too.

But I have to agree with Luke here: Grace was a revelation. Her “Natural Woman” was sexy, sultry, and sassy, but also classy and classic. She was a true natural woman up on that stage, and while she didn’t even attempt to hit that famous Kelly Clarkson Season 1 whistle-note, she owned the moment in her own way, with a gritty growl and dramatic knee-bend. This was the first time I had seen Grace as a breakout star. She sure has come a long way since she made the top 20 of American Juniors, and she deserves to be in the top 20 of American Idol now.

Though we’ll have to wait a week to learn the Lauren/Grace results, we do know that on Sunday, another country contender, “spiritual cowboy” Dillon James, made the grade — thus resolving the least suspenseful Idol cliffhanger ever. But we also learned of a few heartbreaking eliminations, some of which were genuine surprises.

Season 16’s Genevieve Linkowski, who’d seemed like a total-package frontrunner when she returned this year, shockingly lost her way in Hawaii. Doing the overdone “You Say” — which has become the “I’ll Be” of Season 18 — she gave a flat and dreary performance. I expected much more raw emotion from a dedication to her recently deceased older sister. “Last night, for some reason, was the first time I didn’t feel a big connection,” Luke later told Genevieve. Maybe if she’d done her Carole King piano thing, it would have worked out better for her.

Conversely, showboating showman Robert Taylor, rocking some awesome new waist-length pastel braids and glitter eyeshadow, came blasting out of the gate with “Take Me to the Pilot.” Sure, it was totally over-the-top, but no more so than Fantasia and Joshua Ledet’s scenery-chewing version of the Elton John barnstormer on the Season 11 Idol finale, and I dug the vibe. But Robert had been warned repeatedly by the judges and vocal coaches to tone it down, just a smidge, so this go-for-broke performance indicated that he doesn’t take direction very well (or at all). I was dismayed to see him leave, because I think he would have made this season way more interesting (his own cover of “Natural Woman” was a Hollywood Week highlight this year). I hope he heeds mentor Bobby Bones’s advice to keep singing, and Katy’s advice to “keep the hair.”

I was also disappointed by the elimination of two other women who could have balanced out this year’s crop of baby divas: granola girl Shannon Gibbons (the closest we had to a rock chick this season) and quirky indie-popper Demi Rae. I thought Demi’s performance of Noah Cyrus’s “Lonely” was raw, real, and completely compelling — she left it all on the stage, and she felt “on top of the world” and thought it was “the best performance of her whole entire life.” I was ready to declare Demi Season 18’s dark horse…. but then Katy delivered Demi’s bad news in an especially cruel fakeout, disguised as some sort of pep talk. Not cool.

Also going home were former Voice contestant Elyjuh Renee and androgynous blonde Grace Lundy, both of whom received far too little screentime this season. And speaking of lack of screentime… whatever happened to Jamaican busker Jahzan, bluesman Mosean Wilson, or Season 16’s Layla Spring, who apparently won some sort of contest to return via fast-track to Hollywood this year? Weird!

As for the other contestants who did advance to the top 20, I was most pleased about the two men who have the best shot at being “this year’s Alejandro Aranda”: husky School of Rock teacher Franklin Boone and Nepalese folk troubadour Arthur Gunn. Katy was so impressed by Franklin’s tender and restrained performance of John Mayer’s “Daughters” that she cried out, “OK, the show’s over!” before he was even finished. The judges were even more impressed by Arthur. Having once been compared to Bob Marley by Lionel, Arthur took that feedback to heart and covered “Is This Love,” and also followed their advice to keep his eyes open and connect more with the crowd. Lionel especially adored Arthur’s earthy performance, telling him, “You are pure light. Your job to is come in and anoint the world. … You’re our shining star.” Lionel even said Arthur’s no-brainer advancement was the “easiest decision [the judges] ever made.”

The rest of the top 20 — or, um, top 21 — featured an abundance of young divas who may eventually cancel each other out in the voting. The Hawaii showcase standouts for me were Julia Gargano’s achingly beautiful “Glitter in the Air,” which made the hormonal and pregnant Katy all verklempt and had Luke declaring Julia the frontrunner and a future Grammy-winner; Makalya Phillips’s delightfully attitudinal “Sorry Not Sorry,” which earned a standing ovation from Lionel and Luke before the song was even over; Lauren Spencer-Smith’s sassy “Respect,” which Katy said had “the it-factor”; and Sophia Wackerman’s equally vampy and sassy “Levels,” during which the wholesome girl-next-door shocked everyone by channeling Nikka Costa in a slinky ’70s jumpsuit.

I was shocked myself to find out that Luke and Lionel didn’t like Sophia’s performance (after all, when Just Sam pulled a similar 180 last week, everyone thought it was fantastic), but relieved that Katy tipped the scales in Sophia’s favor. It would have sucked if Sophia had ended up in some sort of viewer-voted top 22 purgatory.

Top 20 contestants that I think could have been swapped out for more captivating contenders (like Demi, Shannon, or Robert) included Aliana Jester, whose “This Is Me” was predictable Idol also-ran fodder; Kimmy Gabriela’s pitch-perfect but generic and perhaps all too fittingly titled “You Don’t Do It for Me Anymore” (even Katy called Kimmy forgettable, before putting her through anyway); and Cyniah Elise and Olivia Ximines’s try-hard and pageant-y performances of “Lady Marmalade” and “Proud Mary,” respectively. I think Cyniah still has a ton of potential, but cheer squad girl Olivia’s number was Branson-like and cloyingly cutesy, right down to the gimmicky fringed Tina Turner cosplay; I much preferred it when the gone-too-soon chest-waxer Gil Rivera auditioned with that song.

Idol returns over the next two Sundays with consecutive American Idol: This Is Me specials, cobbling together behind-the-scenes, biographical footage of the top 20 contestants while producers scramble to figure out what the rest of this derailed season is going to look like. But as I said next Sunday, we’ll know whether Lauren Mascitti or Grace Leer is in that finalized top 20. See you then.

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Originally published