After a year of hype and the promise of a revamped singing competition that will blow everything else out of the water, Simon Cowell's "X Factor" debuted and turned out to be, at best, "American Idol" in an arena and, at worst, "America's Got Talent" without the jugglers.
Comparisons to other reality competitions are unavoidable, not only because "X Factor" marks the TV return of beloved duo Simon and Paula, but because Cowell has taken elements from many competitive series and put them in a giant blender: the auditions in front of a live audience of "Talent"; the small-town-hero angle of "Idol"; former "Sing-Off "judge Nicole Scherzinger; and an impossibly tall, foreign-born, hug-happy host, à la "So You Think You Can Dance" star Cat Deeley. But so far, Frankensteining a bunch of popular TV shows hasn't made "The X Factor" feel all that groundbreaking.
In its defense, audition episodes are often the tackiest, most manipulative and most bloated part of any reality competition, particularly "American Idol." Easy-target freak shows and exploitative sob stories abound. In the two-night (!) four-hour (!!) "X Factor" premiere, we met washed-up R&B divas, recovering meth-head waste managers and a stripping novelty act that had Paula regretting her breakfast burrito.
Meanwhile, "tribute act" contestants like Prince-loving Siameze and the James Brown-aping Dexter Heygood received good reviews, even though they might seem more at home on "America's Got Talent." (Now that I mention it, one of the girls in metal duo "You Only Live Once" was just on "AGT" this summer doing the same exact shtick. You'd think Cowell's production company — which oversees both shows — would have caught that.)
After two nights, the only thing that differentiates "X Factor" from every other music-based reality competition is a $5 million contract, mentioned approximately 14 times a minute, and ... well, that's about it.
Simon Cowell spent so much time obsessing over how to top "American Idol" that he lost sight of the one show he should be paying attention to: "The Voice." NBC's midseason breakout cracked the code and figured out how to make audition episodes fresh again. The secret? Blind auditions that forced the judges to make snap decisions on the spot, aided by a giant red button left over from "Press Your Luck," which activated a giant swivel chair. There was cooked-up suspense in every single audition. Gimmicky? You bet. Fun as hell and new? Absolutely.
Truth be told, once the blind auditions ended, "The Voice" became a less exciting reality show with a so-so talent pool. The most interesting parts — the judges are also mentors, their famous friends drop by for one-on-one coaching time — were all components liberally lifted from the U.K.'s "X Factor" format. Ironic that the one reality show Simon didn't take from is the one that stole from him, don'cha think?
All hope is not lost for "The X Factor," though. When it works — like recovering addict Chris Rene performing a heart-tugging original called "Young Homey" or rugby player (and former "Idol" hopeful) Caitlyn Koch turning "Stop in the Name of Love" into an Adele song — it lives up to its potential as a fresher, more contemporary take on "Idol." (Those two auditions made me infinitely more excited than anything I saw during the "Idol" tryouts this year.) Plus, as a casual watcher of the U.K. series, I know that there are tons of surprises and high drama in store. With the promise of "awards-show-style performances" from the contestants starting with the live shows in November, I'm confident "The X Factor" will grow into the groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind, must-see spectacle it claims to be.
Until then, I'll miss Christina Aguilera and her swivel chair.