American Idol: Lee DeWyze’s Surprise Win, Paula Abdul’s Awkward Toast

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Performer Lee Dewyze poses at the March 11 party for the 12 finalists of the television show "American Idol"

REUTERS / Mario Anzuoni

America’s favorite reality TV singing competition came to a close Wednesday night, and it looked to many like the better singer lost.

Wednesday was a wild night on the American Idol stage – a history-making evening that is bound to have fans talking for quite some time. TIME’s TV critic James Poniewozik said the evening was far less noteworthy for who won the 2010 competition than for the powerhouse personality that said farewell. Last night was Simon Cowell’s final Idol, and May 26 may be remembered more for the judge who left than the singer who was crowned.

As for the coronation, it was a surprise Crystal Bowersox had long been praised as a virtuoso talent. On Tuesday night, the judges all but declared her the de facto top dawg of the final round. But in a nationwide popularity contest, Lee DeWyze seemed to strike the widest and most passionate appeal, and he ran away with the most votes. It might just be that the better singer lost to the more popular singer – though no doubt Bowersox will now go the route of Clay Aiken or Adam Lambert, and leverage her considerable talent and exposure into a viable, meaningful career.

Cowell’s farewell made up a big part of the season finale, with even comedian Dane Cook showing up to recount his favorite Cowell disses – in song form. And with an array of top talent showing up to bid the cynical Cowell a cheerful adieu, former judge Paula Abdul made an Idol return that was unusual, and at times unsettling.

She poked fun at her own rushed departure from the show due to contractual conflicts, noting that Idol would pale without Simon at the helm, “but as only I can tell you, it will go on.” She also cracked a few bizarre jokes that failed to earn laughs, and seemed to flirt with telling the American Idol machine precisely what she really thought of getting booted off the show – all as the crowd got quiet. Very quiet.

All in all, it was a mixed bag of a finale – leaving loyalists wondering if the show will indeed go on to endure in a post-Simon era, and leaving even casual fans wondering what would be the lasting headline: Paula’s plodding, Simon’s sunset, Crystal’s snub or Lee’s moment in the spotlight.

What would you pick?