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A Fond (No, Really!) Farewell To 'American Idol'

Kelly Clarkson won the first season of <em>American Idol </em>in September 2002 over Justin Guarini, in front of co-hosts Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman, who almost looks aware that this would be his only season.
Ray Mickshaw
Kelly Clarkson won the first season of American Idol in September 2002 over Justin Guarini, in front of co-hosts Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman, who almost looks aware that this would be his only season.

Oh, American Idol. You were too good for this world.

OK, maybe not too good. Maybe too rooted in people voting via telephone calls.

When the show, which concludes its run Thursday night, started in June 2002, the first publicly available iPhone was almost five years away. Imagine starting a show today where you asked people interested in pop music to use a phone to dial a toll-free number. You might as well ask them to vote by waving a fountain pen at a dodo. Sure, text and online voting came along later, but at the outset, it was audience engagement by telephone call. That says something about just how long this show hung on. And on. Tonight's battle between La'Porsha Renae and Trent Harmon will be its last.

The keys to the show's long-running success? For one thing, it was different (at the time). It offered nasty (but often right) Simon Cowell at one end of the scale and sweet (but sometimes hard to parse) Paula Abdul at the other, with catch-phrase-y (but extraneous) Randy Jackson in the middle. There was, at first, a strange thrill in seeing people's dreams dashed, as if we were all gradually reclaiming every moment we'd spent listening to performances we didn't think were very good from people who seemed to ... well, who seemed to have whatever you would call the opposite problem from not knowing your own strength.

But had it just been a chance to gang up on moderately talented dreamers, it would have been rapidly supplanted by YouTube commenting. It has always been my theory that the key to Idol's success lay in the notoriously dastardly practice known in psychology as intermittent reinforcement. I think of it informally as "the way to make rats go mad," but that's not really right: In this case, what it means is that you usually didn't hear particularly great performances, but every now and then, something really special would happen. And that's how they got you. At least that's how they got me.

So much of it was so bad — more precisely, so forgettable — but then creativity or talent or both would peek out through the clouds, and you'd think, "I'd buy that record." Or, just as often if not more often, you'd think, "You are probably too good for this." Perhaps you have your favorite contestants if you were a viewer; I certainly have mine. But if we start arguing about that, we'll be here all day, because unlike American Idol, fighting with strangers about the quality of the work of third parties you've never met will always be in fashion.

The more it came to light that winning wasn't all that important (other finishers often went on to bigger careers than winners), the less essential the results shows felt, and the less essential the entire competitive element felt. It seemed more and more like a straight-up talent show, and as a straight-up talent show, again, it was competing with every Vine, every YouTube video, and eventually every other talent show.

It was a hit, then a phenomenon, then a veteran, and then a bit of a cultural afterthought, even as it hung in with numbers of live viewers that any network would be happy to have. And then, inevitably, it came time for it to cough its final melismatic cough and begin its final, overwrought, remembrance-ridden farewell season.

As with people, some shows deserve obituaries that say, in effect, "Lived well, lived long, died of natural causes." And, in this case — though this is rarely true in people — "Is survived by, among others, Little Big Shots with Steve Harvey."

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.