Imagine a reality competition that mixes the drama of "Dancing With the Stars," the variety-show feel of "America's Got Talent," the weekly singing battles of "American Idol" and the cutthroat competition between celebrity judges of "The Voice." That would be amazing, right?
Well, guess what? It exists, and it's called "The X Factor." But chances are you're not watching it. Simon Cowell's bid to make "Factor" the new "Idol" hasn't taken off as quickly as he brashly predicted earlier this year. The show is pulling in a solid 9-plus million viewers per night, which is about half of the 20 million Simon promised. But Nielsen recently reported that the strong ratings helped the Fox Network — which also airs "Idol" — win the November "sweeps" period among the coveted 18-29 demo by grabbing the top spot among unscripted programs.
And yet, even as "Factor" drills down to its final seven contestants this week, the show has failed to develop that must-see-TV aura that "Idol" has enjoyed for nearly a decade. After covering "Idol" for nine seasons, I was exceedingly reluctant to take on yet another musical competition show, but somehow "Factor" has wormed its way into my TiVo and I've become a major fan.
So in case you haven't been watching, here's what I think you've been missing:
Forget for a moment that Cowell remains the biggest name in reality-TV judging, or that he recruited his Paul McCartney — Paula Abdul — to join him on the judging panel. So far, the show has hosted eye-popping performances from Willow Smith, Jessie J, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Bruno Mars and, this week, Tinie Tempah. Yes, "Idol" also lands big names, but it's often saddled with giving up prime-time slots to snoozy former winners and finalists like Constantine Maroulis, Crystal Bowersox and David Cook, whose careers have not exactly set the charts on fire.
If nothing else elevates "Factor" above "Idol" or "The Voice," it's the elaborate, over-the-top staging. "Idol" pulls out the big guns for the finale, but from the very first live show, "Factor" has been giving us VMA/Grammy-worthy production numbers complete with backup dancers, constantly varying sets and a massive video-screen-covered stage that makes each performance feel like an event. The craftsmanship is so bombastic at times that it's easy to forget that you're essentially watching nobodies on a game show.
Because of the format (which includes groups, boys, girls and over 30's), so far this season we've seen rappers, country groups, pop stars, boy bands, R&B crooners and hip-hop/soul hybrids on "Factor."
While "Idol" has struggled over the past few seasons to launch a bona fide star and has frequently been saddled with top 12 groupings larded with substandard singers, almost without exception, the acts that made it to the live shows on "Factor" had some legitimate commercial potential. From such eliminated groups as New Jack revivalists Stereo Hogzz to manufactured country act Lakoda Rayne and soul singer LeRoy Bell, even the early castoffs from "Factor" have a legitimate shot at making it in the industry. Add in such easily packaged finalists as cutie diva Rachel Crow, next Chris Brown-type Marcus Canty, power vocalist Melanie Amaro and hip-hop tween Astro and you have a top seven silly with possible future stars. And I'll put former-addict rapper/crooner Chris Rene up against Lee DeWyze any day.
As much as we hate to love him, Cowell really is the best at this, and his banter with a more subdued Abdul was missed. Add into the mix opinionated, no-BS veteran music man L.A. Reid and weepy ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and you have a panel that is fun to watch and quick to scrap. With each judge competing against each other as well, you also get some seemingly legitimate sniping and griping among them that adds more drama to the show. And who can forget Abdul's painfully long on-air near breakdown when pressed by annoying host to Steve Jones to choose between two of her groups during week three?
With all of that going on, producers have also ceaselessly hammered the rich backstories of the contestants, from fresh-out-of-rehab young dad Chris Rene and shockingly overconfident Brooklyn teen MC Astro to formerly homeless soul rocker Dexter Haygood and scrappy 13-year-old Crow. The white-knuckle moments each week when the judges are forced to potentially toss one of their own overboard — not to mention back-to-back double-elimination episodes — amps up the drama even more.
"It shows people's lives, it shows who they are ... it shows what they're about, what they represent," finalist Rene told MTV News. "It doesn't just show an artist or a singer. They go into your life and they're like, 'So who are you? What are you about? What do you do?' ... If I wasn't me, and I was watching the show and I'd seen all the stuffs that's going on with all the different contestants, I would be like, 'Wow this is crazy! What's going on here? What is this? Did they set this up? Like, is this real?' "
Have you been watching "X Factor"? Share your thoughts in the comments below!