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'American Idol' recap: The final season begins

'American Idol' recap: The final season begins
Sonika Vaid auditions for 'American Idol' with Carrie Underwood's 'Look At Me.'

"American Idol" is back to say goodbye. After 14 seasons, some more successful than others, the show that Simon Fuller built – bringing his "Idol" franchise from the U.K. to America in the summer of 2002 and creating the widely watched, family-friendly entertainment juggernaut that launched the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Phillip Phillips, Jennifer Hudson and so many others and turned relative unknowns such as former judge Simon Cowell and longtime host Ryan Seacrest into household names – returned for its 15th and final season on Wednesday night.

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With a half-hour lead-in to the first two hours of its two-part, four-hour season premiere (the second half will air Thursday), Fox took the opportunity to underscore all that "Idol" has been to its viewers over the years. Fuller, Seacrest, judges and contestants past and present, and music and entertainment journalists --- including Shirley Halperin, who to used cover the show for this very blog -- were summoned to employ phrases like "lightning in a bottle," "power and impact" and "part of American history" to describe it.

"If you just look at the amount of records sold," as well as the number of Grammy and other awards won and the fame achieved by those associated on the show, current judge Harry Connick Jr. posited, "it's a powerhouse."

"For something like six or seven seasons, we were the No. 1 show in America," Fuller reminded us. "I would like to think that 'American Idol' is very important and will be looked back on as one of the very most important TV shows in history. That's why this next season needs to be a celebration."

Key to the festivities will be finding top talent to compete, of course, and so the show began its valedictory season, which it predictably promised would be its "best … ever," by going in search of its next and final winner.

First stop for the Season 15 audition train: Atlanta, Georgia. There, successful singers included …

Michelle Marie, a Daytona Beach, Fla., 15-year-old with a very enthusiastic family who fulfilled her "lifelong goal" by earning a ticket to Hollywood with her rendition of LeAnn Rimes' "Blue." Connick told her he thought people would go "absolutely nuts" for her, and Lopez called the performance "very, very pretty" and natural.

Josiah Siska, a Dacula, Ga., 17- or 18-year-old (it wasn't clear which) showcased his deep, resonant voice with a Johnny Cash-style "Riders In The Sky." Siska's performance prompted Connick to run up and do a clippety-clop horsey thing – and it got him through to the next round. "That's just cool. We've never heard anything like that," Connick said, expressing admiration for Siska's a "commitment" and musical know-how.

Lindita, a 26-year-old personal trainer, originally from Kosovo, who had lost 150 pounds to prepare for her audition and who collected a golden ticket with a showy, run-heavy take on "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" by James Brown. The judges suggested Lindita might want to dial back the runs, but Lopez commended her for "power and confidence" and said she had soul. "She sings like a heavy girl," Lopez observed. "She didn't lose that part."

Lee Jean, 15, from a big family in Bluffton, S.C., who had been inspired to audition by an older brother who believed in him and who died in 2012. Jean's gentle rendition of Ed Shearan's "I See Fire" inspired Lopez to exclaim that she wanted to "squeeze" him. Connick and Keith Urban urged him to work on his grip on pitch, but Urban complimented Jean's "tone," "singer-songwriter quality" and "God-given talent." Three yeses for Jean.

Then it was on to Denver, where, among others, we met …

Jeneve Mitchell, a 15-year-old, cello-playing singer who lives way "off the grid" – no electricity, no power lines, only a generator the family fires up to watch 'Idol' – in Crawford, Colo.. The coaches responded to Mitchell's compellingly off-beat version of "Chainsaw" by the Band Perry by handing over a ticket to Hollywood. "That was some crazy stupid funk you were playing," Connick said. "You're a work in progress, but, boy, there's a lot to work with."

Sonika Vaid, 20, who came all the way from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to deliver her pretty, tasteful take on Carrie Underwood's "Look At Me." Lopez said she loved it "a lot" – and Connick perhaps even more. He called it "a perfect performance," said Vaid had a "beautiful" voice that "touched him," and predicted she could win the whole thing.

Reanna Molinaro, 24, a police officer from Hobbs, N.M., who handcuffed Connick with her best "duty" cuffs at his peculiar request and then sang Patsy Cline's "Leavin' on Your Mind," showing off what Urban called a "really lovely" and "really pure" country voice. Connick insisted on leaving the cuffs on throughout Molinaro's performance, and then, while still recovering from the pain, said he'd happily be Tasered by Molinaro the next time they met. Uh … whatever you're into, Harry.

Several returning contestants, including Kory Wheeler, who came back to give it another shot with "Bennie & The Jets" by Elton John and made it through.

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Joshua Wicker, a 25-year-old expectant dad from Jacksonville, Fla., whom Lopez called a dead ringer for Ryan Gosling. He sang Rihanna's "Stay" and collected three yeses. Lopez admired the "different pretty colors" in Wicker's voice, and Urban said he'd sung the song as if he himself had written it.

Jordan and Alex Sasser, a married couple from Raleigh, N.C., who were ushered in front of the judges with their adorably giggly baby daughter in tow and were left to pick up the pieces when Alex failed to earn a ticket to Hollywood and Jordan did. The judges found Alex's take on Bruno Mars' "Count on Me," on which she accompanied herself on a pink ukulele "too light" and superficial, whereas Jordan was deemed "talented," "smart" and "terrific" after he performed Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me." Oddly, the coaches had called Alex's family "distracting" but didn't say the same to Jordan. (In fact, Lopez was moved by Alex's attention on Jordan as he performed.) Double standard?

Kerry Courtney, 24, of St. Petersburg, Fla., whose musical pursuits were inspired by his late mother. I found his rendition of Death Cab for Cutie's "Black Sun" strange, but the coaches liked it. "Quirky and different," Connick called it. Lopez worried that it might be a little "dark" and "scary" for America, but all three coaches voted him through anyway.

Shelbie Z, a 23-year-old hairdresser from Sumiton, Ala., who will look familiar to those who watch "The Voice." (A country singer, she made it onto Blake Shelton's team in 2013.) She sang Carrie Underwood's "Last Name," which she had sung on "The Voice" in her knockout round, when she emerged victorious over actress Kaley Cuoco's sister, Briana, and made it through to Hollywood. "I don't like you," Connick teased. "I love you." He added that, though she seemed "kind and nice," she was likely "going out there to try to win."

Then, weirdly, Kanye West (an experienced interrupter) showed up in the audition room, with a pregnant Kim Kardashian playing the role of concerned family member, chatting with Seacrest outside. He entertained the judges with his rap "Gold Digger," in which he mentions Jennifer Lopez, was handed a token golden ticket and ended the first night of the last season of "Idol." It was an odd way to cap the episode, but an effective way to signal that this last season will likely be far from ordinary and full of (arguably random) surprises.

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