FOX s iconic talent competition sings its final note on Thursday

By Tom Gliatto
Updated April 06, 2016 09:00 PM
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Credit: Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty

In spring 2007, American Idol had what could be called its Donald Trump moment.

The sixth season of Fox’s make-me-a-pop-superstar/talent-show juggernaut had acquainted millions of Americans with a contestant named Sanjaya Malakar. He was a sweet, mildly talented and – at some fundamental level – rather silly 17-year-old. Judge Simon Cowell regarded him as a waste of time and undeserving of a continued spot on the Idol stage.

And yet he stayed. Viewers kept voting to keep him in the competition. Why?

It would have been one thing if gangly, smiling Sanjaya were merely an underdog. Except that he was, by Idol standards, more like a beneath-dog. Did his week-to-week survival indicate that the machinery of the show was malfunctioning or faltering? Was the show’s critical guardianship – embodied by Cowell, unrivaled as television’s voice of ironic British scorn until Maggie Smith entered the drawing room on Downton Abbey – at odds with the public?

Did viewers support Sanjaya because he was cute and had a coltish mane of brown hair – there was a famous viral moment of a little girl weeping while he performed “You Really Got Me” – or were they enjoying the subversive thrill of derailing a show that, right out of the gate in June 2002, seemed impervious to any and all challengers? (Howard Stern, for one, endorsed the subversive ploy.)

Was American Idol, with its phenomenal ratings and confident boosterism of mainstream music, in danger of a grassroots rebellion or (worse) a collective nose-thumbing?

With the hindsight of history and IMDb.com, we know that season 6 ultimately was won by the sweet and utterly unobjectionable Jordin Sparks. (As a laurel, she was given her own single, a ballad with the barely logical title “This Is My Now.”) The show didn’t fracture or collapse, despite all the weeks of Sanjaya.

As everyone knows, it’s only now, nearly a decade later, that American Idol heads into its very last nights after a total 15 seasons. If ratings aren’t what they once were, the show hasn’t dwindled down to a humbler scale. That would have been unthinkable, like Ben-Hur without the chariot race or The Phantom of the Opera without the falling chandelier. It’s still spectacle.

The thing is that the show in 2007 was so big – as Trump would say, huuuuuuge – that any perceived threat of a trip-up felt like a crisis. It’s actually rather exciting to think about it, even now. We came through, America! You prevailed, Idol!

And yet, in retrospect, the Sanjaya controversy was nothing more than the excitement of the moment – moments, rather, that usually took up three solid nights a week, live, in prime time. Would it have mattered if Sanjaya went all the way? After all, the winner of season 5, which drew a record audience of 36 million for its finale, was Taylor Hicks. If you object that that’s comparing apples and oranges, friend, then you don’t know fruit.

Sanjaya didn’t matter. Although at the time, yes, he certainly seemed to.

For more on Idol, pick up PEOPLE’s The Best of American Idol collector’s edition issue, on sale now.

But Idol was never about the quality of the music so much as it was about sharing the contestants’ survival experience. They came from Nowheresville, USA, to be restyled into pop product while overcoming exhaustion, stress, self-doubt, rejection and tears. The singing performances mostly consisted of bravely standing before America and then running the gauntlet of judges (“You were pitchy”). This wasn’t necessarily the best way to discover and gauge authentic new voices.

In fact, the single greatest talent to emerge from Idol – to emerge almost from the first minute – wasn’t even a singer. It was host Ryan Seacrest. He’s often compared to the late Dick Clark, but he’s really Alexander the Great reincarnated as a producer-personality.

Anyway, American Idol was great entertainment. If you were there for it, you’ll remember it fondly. Sanjaya, too.

The singing competition’s grand finale kicks off Wednesday, when the remaining finalists battle it out at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. The series concludes on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET, when a winner is crowned and past contestants – including champs Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood – return to the Idol stage.