Film and TV

The X Factor: There's A Reason We Call it Boot Camp

The pace of the audition rounds was so fast, I didn't realize the judges put through 162 people in the first two weeks of The X Factor. When the field arrives in Los Angeles for "boot camp" they are informed that they will be shaved down to a field of 100, which will ultimately be reduced by two-thirds: only 32 contestants will make it through to ... whatever comes after boot camp.

There are pluses and minuses to the revised show format for boot camp. On the plus side, we get to meet a few talented contestants from the audition rounds who weren't featured on the earlier episodes, and the 90-minute format is watchable in just over an hour when you DVR and fast-forward through commercials. On the con side, the episode is so short we hardly have a minute to figure out who is who, and we are left with a lot of disjointed footage of performances, individual interviews, and the occasional extended shot of Paula Abdul sobbing. We hear the phrase, "This is why they call it boot camp" about a half-dozen times, but other than dancing I don't see anyone acting particularly drill-sergeant-y, although someone does gently suggest to 14-year-old "Stop Lookin' At My Moms" rapper Brian Bradley that maybe he might want to join in on the dance practice? Pretty please? It's fun!

After a day of dance training and some sing- and dance-offs, the contestants are whittled down from 162 to 100; the process is so fast that it's over by the time I prep the five-ingredient soup I am making for dinner. The group of 100 is then broken up into teams, who will be coached by stylists, choreographers, and voice coaches for a performance for the judges. These performances will determine who moves on to the next round.

Group 1: "Creep" by Radiohead: Some of the most memorable contestants return in this group, including Dexter Haygood, the 52-year-old Jagger/James Brown hybrid who threw in a little Steven Tyler for good measure this episode. The group performed the song reasonably well, though I think Haygood has sung his last note on XF. This group also featured Audrey Turner, 52, a less-famous former wife of Ike Turner. Whaaaa?

Group 2: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2: The entire Joshua Tree album brings me back to college, and this song is my favorite. Jazzlyn Little, the 16-year-old who wowed in the last audition episode blew the opening lyrics but she kept it together for the rest of the song. Power voices Melanie Amaro and Stacy Francis showed a lot of control, and played nice with the group instead of going all power-diva.

Group 3: "Desperado" by The Eagles: Seinfeld ruined this song for me, so now all I can think of is Elaine and her crazy boyfriend who loves "Desperado." This was the weakest group overall, but two standout performances came from 59-year-old Leroy Bell (who looks about 32) and 22-year-old waitress Dani Knights.

Group 4: "Wishing on a Star" by Jay Z: The singing/rapping combo seems ripe for disaster but the group performed reasonably well. Brian Bradley continues his run as brattiest reality show contestant: in addition to refusing to dance during boot camp (because "Jay Z doesn't dance on stage") he also brags that in about five years he will eclipse Jay Z as best rapper in the rapper-verse. I hope this kid gets booted because he needs an ego check.

Group 5: "Superman" by Five for Fighting: I got all excited when I saw Nick Dean, 16, of Rochester, NY, my old college stomping grounds. Then he started singing and I just felt bad because in addition to not sounding great, he forgot the words. Burrito-slinging Josh Krajcik was the standout of the group. I can't wait until he gets to take the stage solo.

Group 6: "Feeling Good" by Nina Simone: This performance was all about Tiah Tolliver, the deli clerk that Simon begged through during the audition round. Paula and Nicole have faces of stone (or the editing makes it look that way) but Tiah comes out singing, and she is amazing. Simon knows that the most important part about being right is saying "I told you so," which he does ten times after the audition is over, whilst smirking happily.

Group 7: "I Have Nothing" by Whitney Houston: Oh. Em. Gee. I have sung this song, badly, a thousand times, alone in the car. It's really hard. Rachel Crow--the first contestant we met in auditions (Episode 1)--manages to sell the chorus of this song, even though she is only thirteen years old. She has a ton of talent and personality, although listening to a 13 year old sing this song convincingly makes me uncomfortable.

Group 8: "Run" by Snow Patrol: Houston group Stereo Hoggz perform admirably, as do Mackenna and Brock--remember them? He's 18 and secretly in love with her? Well she's secretly in love with him, too! Yay! Seriously, I think it's cute. Anyway, that crazy Siameze guy is still dressing like a Prince impersonator but he has toned down the stage antics; his voice sounds decent but I'm not sure that it's enough.

While ratings have continued to drop, and in spite of the unusual production and editing choices, The X Factor remains eminently watchable for one reason: Simon Cowell. In a recent Rolling Stone piece on The X Factor, RS writes: "(N)o matter what talents and personalities get discovered on The X Factor, none of them can compete with watching Simon revel in his role as the unchallenged king." He continues to offer up blunt criticism, he continues to mug incessantly for the cameras, and to flirt with/harass Paula Abdul, and breaks it up with the occasional soft emotion--it's addictive.

Part two of boot camp continues tonight. The X Factor continues tonight at 7 p.m. CT on FOX. You can watch video excerpts from past episodes online.