Pound-for-pound, Wednesday night's two-hour season two premiere of the "X Factor" packed more emotional highs and lows into just two audition segments than most one-hour dramas manage in an entire episode.
There were tears, jeers, hugs, awkward silences, dashed dreams, triumphant bliss and, if you can believe it, some truly heartfelt sentiment (and damn near waterworks) from the ice king himself, Simon Cowell.
In keeping with reality singing audition episode protocol, producers saved the best for last. When Jillian Jensen, 19, walked out on stage for the final segment, your first inclination might have been to think that this sassy raven-haired rocker girl in shiny gold leopard-print pants and a black tank top was going to blow the judges away with some serious pipes and attitude.
What we quickly learned, however, was that she is an emotional, somewhat fragile teen whose birthday is nearly the same as new judge Demi Lovato's and that she's "kind of a fan" of the "Give Your Heart a Break" star. "This was totally by coincidence, I swear, but I happen to get a tattoo that happens to say, 'stay strong,'" she told Lovato, whose wrists also bear that inspirational message.
At first, Lovato seemed a bit put off, but when Jensen explained that she shared a history of being bullied in middle and high school with the singer, Jensen began to tear up and Lovato's face switched to pure empathy. In backstage tape, Jensen tearfully explained how bullies would tell her she'd never make it and prank call her by playing her songs over the phone and making fun of them.
"I really, really, really just want to get through to just be able to say, 'I can do this, I am good enough,'" she said before taking the stage as Lovato's "Skyscraper" swelled in the background. "Jillian, I don't know where the bullies are, but you're standing on the 'X Factor' stage," judge L.A. Reid told her.
"Look, we're both up here," added Lovato with a head shake, while fellow newbie judge Britney Spears beamed. "The bullies that bullied us, they're at home watching us on TV!"
It's too early to say how far Jensen will go in the competition, since her teary, husky-voiced cover of Jessie J's "Who You Are" was solid, and full of passion, but not great. That single tear running down Lovato's face, though ... well, that was some seriously good TV.
The crowd in the house (and backstage) went nuts and Jensen just lost it, as Lovato walked to the stage and gave her a long, loving embrace. Even Cowell seemed on the verge of tears. "It's OK, I know exactly what you've gone through but I made it through and I know you will to," Demi reassured a sobbing Jensen.
"Honey, I have never, ever heard anybody take their experiences, take their pain, take their emotion and pour it into the song the way you did. Ever! That's what this business is all about!" said Reid. A choked up Cowell called it simply "incredible."
Spears told Jensen she had nothing to cry about, but when it came time for Don Philip's audition, it was another story. Philip, who sang a duet with Spears called "I Will Still Love You" on her 1999 debut album, ...Baby One More Time, was clearly nervous to see his old singing partner again.
Following years of frustration, too many almosts and a lot of maybes in a career that never quite panned out, raspy vocal coach Philip, 32, told the camera, "I hope she likes me ... I hope she likes me."
Spears could barely look him in the face, uttering "oh my gosh," when Philip walked out and she was left staring, mouth-agape at a musical ghost of her past. He burst into tears, saying, "I never thought I'd see you again," eliciting sympathy from Spears and confidently deeming himself finally ready for his shot at fame.
But his cover of Beyoncé's "Halo" was herky-jerky, thin and nasally and, well, not that good. You could see the disappointment on the judges' faces, with each avoiding eye contact, especially Spears, who gazed to the side during the entire audition with a sad, slightly horrified look on her face.
Cowell said sharply, "you don't have a good singing voice." Philip turned to his old pal for a lifeline, but Spears offered none. "I feel like through the years maybe you've gone through a lot of hardships and battles ... but your voice really isn't up to the bar of the standards of the 'X Factor' and what we want,'" she told him.
It was a harsh, but fair, assessment and Philip's plea for another shot fell on deaf ears. It was four "no" votes and while Spears looked pained by the choice, it was her former duet partner who lost it backstage, terrified that he'd let her down. "Did you see Britney's eyes?" he cried. "I saw her face and I feel like I've hurt her ... I never meant to hurt Britney."