By Chaz Lipp

How do you expand an hour of content to fill a two-hour finale? Filler, filler, and more filler. The American Idol Season 16 (Season 1 on ABC) finale was a whimper compared to the truly spectacular season capper’s during the show’s prime. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t still a lot of fun—and, most importantly, it was highlighted by some moments of genuine emotion. The revelation of the romance between Top Two contestants Maddie Poppe and Caleb Lee Hutchinson had the feel of a fairy tale, almost too good to be true. And, of course, the underdog victory of the season’s most modest performer elevated this new season to the level of the show’s peak years.

Reviewing the list of guest performers, it’s clear this isn’t 2006/07 anymore. Some of the special guests were returnees from mentoring early in the season, suggesting a preseason package deal was cut with some of these folks. Nick Jonas (who, early in the show, wasted our time with some DJ/rapper called Mustard—nothing to do with Idol) joined Top 7 finalist Jurnee for a duet on “Jealous.” Bebe Rexha and the top three, Maddie, Caleb, and Gabby Barrett, did “Meant to Be.” In one of the finale’s hipper moments, Gary Clark Jr. rocked the house with the help of Cade Foehner and Dennis Lorenzo on “Bright Lights.” Michael J. Woodard got to sing with one of his heroes, gospel superstar Yolanda Adams, on “What the World Needs Now.”

Gabby Barrett and Luke Bryan

The judges finally unleashed their skills, with Lionel Ritchie kicking off the show with a rousing “All Night Long” that featured backing vocals by the Top 10. But it was kind of a diva moment, considering both Luke Bryan and Katy Perry chose to share the spotlight with contestants—the former sang “Most People Are Good” with Gabby, the latter did “Part of Me” with Catie Turner. The Top 2 each got a featured celebrity duet as well: Darius Rucker joined Caleb for “Wagon Wheel,” while Maddie was saddled with Kermit the Frog simply because she auditioned with “The Rainbow Connection.”

Ada Vox and Patti Labelle

By far the best duet was Ada Vox and Patti Labelle who shook the auditorium to its foundations with “Lady Marmalade.” Ada reminded us that in terms of powerhouse vocals, there was no one this season who could hold a candle. As for cuteness, nothing rivaled the surprise appearance of Leann Rimes, who took country gal Layla Spring and her little sister Dixie’s breath away. Clearly unstaged, the sisters were genuinely shocked that their rendition of “Blue” became a trio performance.

And, as with Idol finales past, there were oddball moments. Noah “Wig” Davis was presented with an alpaca named “Laurel or Yanny.” Noah seemed to have figured out where they were going with the bit before the animal was revealed, as he was more intent on emphatically stating that the much-debated viral recording is, in fact, “Laurel.” Are they really giving him that alpaca? My guess is that it’s more of an honorary thing.

Sanjaya Malakar and Jimmy Kimmel

Jimmy Kimmel came out with a huge American Idol time capsule. Amid various props (“I feel like Carrot Top,” Kimmel quipped), the big punch line was that Season Six finalist Sanjaya Malakar was living inside the capsule. Dear readers, if you’re interested in what Sanjaya is truly capable of, yours truly recorded a jazz album with him (Good Merlin released last year, credited to The Chaz Lipp Groove Tripp) that shows off his vocals skills. (Shameless plug, yes, but seriously—your life is incomplete if you haven’t heard Sanjaya’s terrific interpretation of jazz classics like “Summertime,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Take the A Train,” and more.)

Caleb Lee Hutchinson and Maddie Poppe

But the night belonged to Maddie Poppe and Caleb Lee Hutchinson (whose dead-on Lionel Ritchie impression was among the show’s highlights). They duetted sweetly on a medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.” They were presented with a Hawaiian vacation—Ryan tried to goad them into using their plus-ones to invite the “other” Idol couple Gabby and Cade (they didn’t take the bait, with Caleb assuring everyone they’d invite their parents along to “supervise”). Maddie, clearly overcome, barely made it through her coronation performance of “Going, Going, Gone,” but the rest of the Top 10 (and even Katy Perry) helped her get through it. Couldn’t have asked for a more emotionally honest conclusion.

Good luck to Maddie, who will be on tour with the rest of the Top 7 throughout the summer.

Chaz Lipp

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