The X Factor: “Auditions #1”
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The X Factor: “Auditions #1”

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The X Factor

“Auditions #1”

Season 1, Episode 1

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Emily Yoshida, who’ll review the show week to week, and Myles McNutt talk about The X-Factor.

The X-Factor debuts tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern. It will also air Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern.

This review contains some mild spoilers. If you can spoil an audition episode of a reality show. 

Emily: If there’s one foregone conclusion on TV this fall, it’s that The X-Factor will lay waste to everything in its wake, chewing up and spitting out every other show that dares to share a medium with it, and leave a bloody trail of shelved scripts and out-of-work actors. Whether or not you believe that Simon Cowell is ratings gold, or that America wants and needs another big singing contest, or even if the pilot is actually any good, it doesn’t matter. From the word “Go,” The X-Factor was The Biggest Show On Television, a self-fulfilling prophecy due largely to the presumed apathy of the American people. The more Fox and USA Today and all the other usual suspects tell us that this show will be huge, the more we are supposed to feel obliged to make it huge, and so it can’t help but be anything but.

It’s been over a year and a half since American Idol producer and judge Cowell announced that he would be jumping ship—a ship that was sputtering, covered in barnacles, but even in its lowest-rated season yet, still the biggest hunk of metal in the marina—and switching his efforts to bring British reality series The X-Factor—which he also produced and judged—to our fair shores. The new show would be bigger, the talent brighter, the stakes higher than anything we naïve Americans had ever seen before. Of course, that’s what they tell us every time Idol rolls out another season, so it’s hard not to be a little skeptical. Sure, talent competitions are fun, but is The X-Factor really more important television than Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, or—hey, why not—The Sing-Off ?

Tonight’s two-hour X-Factor première opens with an introduction sequence which seeks to bludgeon the viewer into believing that we are watching not only the most important television show currently on the air, but the most important televised event in history. We’re given a bit of information about how the actual show works: there are four categories (young men, young women, groups, and old people) and that later on each judge will take one category to mentor and compete against the other judges with, Voice-style. It’s easy to miss these details, however, in the middle of all the considerable noise The X-Factor makes. Helicopters! Michael Bay-worthy music cues! Yes, we roll our eyes at the bombast, but in a very rudimentary way, it also pushes the nostalgia buttons. Television isn’t the crowded, cozy landscape it was when my fifth-grade teacher halted science class so that we could all watch the O.J. Simpson verdict, and outside of professional sports, the idea of actually “watching something with America” has been somewhat diluted. American Idol is one of the only programs that come close, so why shouldn’t we trust Simon Cowell to outdo himself this time…

 …Oh God. It’s already happening. Having been temporarily disoriented by the pyrotechnics of the intro, my guard was let down just long enough to let The X-Factor work its magic on me. I believed that L.A. Reid would never be able to go back to his job at Island/Def Jam unless he found a star. I believed that Welsh robot/Ryan Seacrest stand-in Steve Jones drove that fleet of big rigs across the Rocky Mountains. Well, maybe not quite. But I was primed for a spectacle, and not entirely hating it.

And pyrotechnics or not, there’s also the whole business of, um, $5 million. At this point, I’ve watched enough reality TV competitions to render any dollar amount pretty much abstract—no matter how many zeroes I see, it only really means “enough money to make the silly people on the TV do those crazy things.” But jeez, that is a lot of money. And Cowell has made it clear that it does not include production and management fees, or any conditional contract terms. It’s just 5 million freakin’ dollars. The record deal could be a bust, and there is the vague possibility that a Pepsi Super Bowl commercial won’t necessarily cement one’s place in the pantheon of pop gods, but whoever wins this show will be a multi-millionaire, even after taxes. So there’s that.

After barking at us for what seems like a very long time about how much is at stake here, The X-Factor is finally ready to show us some auditions (don’t worry, if you forget who the judges are, what the prize is, and how revolutionary this show is, they’ll remind you again after the next commercial break.) I’ll be honest, I kind of hate auditions. I usually skip them on Idol in favor of the live shows; it’s a far too staged and predictable form of schadenfreude. I respected The Voice for not giving us any cartoonishly terrible folks in its blind audition rounds, but  that show was too kindhearted and up-with-people to have ever been mistaken for a Fremantle Media production. One of two things is going on in a bad audition: either the contestant is genuinely deluded and is being offered up as a human piñata to be bashed around by the judges (and by extension, America); or they are being intentionally terrible and cashing in on their 15 minutes. Either way, we’re not exactly getting humanity’s brightest hour. And the good auditions are usually merely decent, unless they are saddled with a heartrending backstory, which they inevitably are.

Maybe it was the live audience, but even though it fell victim to these same tropes, I still found X-Factor’s auditions to be surprisingly palatable. They don’t take place in the weird, hermetically sealed bubble that Idol’s seem to take place in; the judges can be swept up in the crowd’s enthusiasm or be forced to second-guess themselves in light of a lukewarm response. Since X-Factor’s only live shows are its final two episodes, this is the closest we’ll get to a popular vote for a while, and it feels surprisingly organic. Someone like the insufferably named (and just insufferable in general) Xander Alexander, who seems more interested in being the next Perez Hilton than pop star (“I’m Whitney before she lost it, Mariah before she lost it, and Britney Spears without the ugly husband”—which, c’mon dude, at least make your lame snark timely) might have been spared if the judges or producers had a lapse in judgement and thought he might be a fun, sassy character to have around. But the audience’s hatred of him is undeniable, and after some genuinely suspenseful deliberation, he’s outta there.

There are some predictable wins: 13-year-old Muppet baby Rachel Crow terrified me with her cutesy antics (I audibly groaned at her hand-on-hip finishing pose) but wins over the judges with her big, brassy rendition of Duffy’s “Mercy.” (Her family seemed relatively normal, which makes me think she’s just naturally precocious and fame-hungry, so, uh, I guess that’s a relief?) If X-Factor doesn’t work out for her, she’s a shoo-in for the seventh season of Glee. There are mercifully only two true “diva” auditions featured in the première, and both of them (Miami’s Melanie Amaro and 42-year-old single mom Stacy Francis) bring the audience to their feet. I hate to be a curmudgeon, but Stacy’s performance of “Natural Woman” is flat and weepy, and I feel that without her backstory (abuse was alluded to) and her downtrodden, Boyle-esque stage presence, her voice wouldn’t have seemed like such a revelation.

There’s one audition that’s genuinely exciting, and the producers are wise to save it for last. 28-year-old Chris Renee, a former meth addict straight outta rehab and a mere 70 days sober, comes out and announces he will be doing an original song, which immediately made my stomach drop. Despite my quibbles with his belief that winning The X-Factor would give his 2-year-old son “stability” (I feel like growing up with a pop star for a dad may be only second to growing up with an addict for a dad as a one-way ticket to therapy) and despite the fact that his song “Young Homie,” a Jason Mraz-esque, singsongy hip-hop number is nothing I would ever choose to listen to on my own accord, Renee is obviously talented and charismatic, and I wanted him to succeed, if only because that whole 70-days sober thing made me extremely nervous. L.A. and Simon both make him swear up and down that he will stay straight if they put him through (because addiction totally works like that) and he agrees, tears flowing. Yikes. Well, if you don’t root for Chris, you’re officially a bad person.

Of course, there is some more shameless manipulation, as well. We’re introduced to bright-eyed Seattle hopeful Marcus, who has the rare combination of good looks, positive attitude, ambition, and apparent mental stability that America wants to root for. But before we find out whether or not he can sing, a title card flashes: “10 Minutes Later.” Marcus is on the ground, eyes glazed over, and Paula is calling his name to what looks like no response. Seems like a good time for a commercial break! And when we come back, what do you know: Marcus did just swell, his brief visit to the floor was merely an expression of his overwhelming joy at having been given the coveted “Four Yeses.” Disappointed? Don’t worry, I’m sure somebody will get seriously injured or have a nervous breakdown before the Christmas finale.

Because as much as The X-Factor hopes to grab the same shiny, happy American Idol audience, I think it also seeks to be a much more problematic show than its predecessor. Its way of exciting you is to hint at the next confrontation, disaster, or Paula Abdul meltdown; celebrating raw talent and the human spirit are second on its list of priorities. It’s no longer enough for us to sit down and watch a bunch of kids of varying levels of talent sing and dance and vie for our affection. We’ve played that game, and we know by now that nobody dies, and nobody becomes immortal, either. We don’t know that yet about The X-Factor. The title of “Idol” and the distinction of having been on television means less and less with every passing year. But $5 million? Until The X-Factor proves it has something better to give its winner, that’ll keep our attention for now.

Stray observations:

  • I purposefully did not go into detail on the “bad” auditions, but here’s the 2-second summary: old crazy people are very funny, and Paula Abdul will probably never come back to Seattle again.
  • In an aggravated case of everything I hate about bad auditions, reject Nicki Collins comes back to confront Simon backstage after her dismissal in an obvious staged confrontation. “You are the meanest person!” Nicki tells Simon, cooperatively propagating the myth of Evil God Simon Cowell, which for some reason, this show thinks it needs in order to be compelling programming.
  • An unexpected delight of the auditions is what I have referred to as HeavenBox in my notes. The auditioner is shown stepping into a CGI box with the X-Factor logo on it, and delivers their parting words in a flood of remarkably shoddy AfterEffects white light. In the first half of the première, we only see the rejects in HeavenBox, but later on, everyone gets to take it for a spin!
  • Cheryl Cole is credited as being “introduced” in the opening sequence, which I guess is only slightly less insulting than being bumped off the panel after the Los Angeles auditions in favor of the terror that is Nicole Scherzinger.
  • There weren’t any groups featured tonight, so I expect we will see more in tomorrow night’s continuation of the auditions, since it is one of the aspects of The X-Factor that sets it apart from its competition.
  • I’ll also go into more detail on the judges’ lineup tomorrow, since aside from an extended “L.A. and Simon disgree about things” montage, we didn’t get too much of an idea of the dynamic between the four of them yet.
  • Speaking of which, we don’t know which judge will mentor which group yet, but my guesses are: L.A.: young men. Nicole: young women. Simon: groups. Paula: old people.
  • Oddly, every time we see the judges vote, Paula has the last word, even though Simon is the last in line. My suspicion is that rather than this being a “tiebreaker” position, it’s the “Paul Abdul has no idea what she thinks about anything” position.
  • I have nowhere else to put this, so here is the imaginary e-mail that Chris Renee got the day after his audition that I wrote in my notes. “Yo Chris – wut up ’young homie’ lol. C U @ bootcamp stay off the crystal and keep ur head up while you’re hauling that trash! Gtg my private jet is waiting! #swag God bless bb <3 LA Reid”
  • Tonight's aired version differed from the advanced screener given to the press. The Dallas and Miami auditions were not featured in the final edit, and the second night of auditions will presumably focus on those two cities.

Myles: People sing. People judge. The end.

Is that not enough for you? In truth, Emily has covered most of the details, and as I sit down to write a “second opinion” I don’t have much else to say. When The X-Factor becomes a big hit, it will be based on inertia more than quality, and on that criteria the show has everything it needs: Familiarity (particularly in the pairing of Simon and Paula), expansion (with everything—the stage, the audience, the number of family members, the hyperbole—larger than life), and the benefit of airing at a time where no other network is doing something similar. If you want to watch singers audition in front of a panel of judges on television this fall, The X-Factor is the show for you.

In truth, this isn’t even really a show that people will have strong opinions about. Chances are you have already decided how you feel about singers who overcome the odds, or young singers who show great potential, or bad singers who are just there to earn their 15 minutes. Unless you really want to test the hypothesis that your opinion might change if they throw generational extremes and groups into the mix, your pre-existing opinion about any and all singing-based talent shows of this nature will likely hold. The judges are different, but they’re not that different, and any of the various devices used (including playing up feuds between the judges) are going to be aggressively familiar.

However, I guess we should stress the “aggressive” there, although not in the way I expected. The X-Factor is big, and occasionally bold, and yet it’s not necessarily as brash as you might expect given Cowell’s reputation. In truth, The X-Factor is aggressively populist, using the expansive audiences to fuel something close to positivity; they aren’t there to mock so much as they’re there to spontaneously break into applause and weaken the impact of the standing ovation by overusing it. There are still bad singers, but the good singers become such a bloody spectacle that you’re left thinking The X-Factor is going to change someone’s life more substantially than anything else in the history of humankind.

It’d be easier, honestly, than changing your opinion regarding reality competition programs about singing.

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