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'American Idol' makes history with an unprecedented twist during Final Judgment

The future of American Idol Season 18 remains in doubt, with production suspended due to coronavirus concerns. But the voting has still opened early, because for the first time in the series’ history, viewers have been asked to decide 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, so the deadlocked judges decided to let America make the call. “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.” “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. “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 the Final Judgment episode (also known as “The Green Mile” among superfans, because the long walk contestants must make to learn their fate) works: It often ends with the last two hopefuls -- usually similar contestants, fan favorites, or best buddies -- making that stressful walk together. Typically, one of the two singer is then cut, right then and there. It makes for good TV, but it’s super-cringey and sad to watch one survivor’s-guilt-racked contestant try to celebrate, while the hapless rejected contestant just sits there in tears. So, while this situation is a little kinder, and it gives viewers a way to get invested in the season early on, it still pits two women against each other -- and it will still ultimately, end in disappointment for one of them. 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 really enjoyed Lauren’s rollicking cover of Emmylou Harris’s “Two More Bottles of Wine,” which felt like a classic 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, and she owned the night. 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.

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