The X Factor: Simon Cowell's Softer Side

Wednesday night, Fox's highly-anticipated The X Factor debuted, and though as of this writing I was unable to find any ratings numbers I have to imagine they were stellar. Not too good - Ed.

Simon Cowell has massive appeal, and even if numbers continue to decline throughout the season, I expect the premiere of The X Factor will have drawn an impressive number of viewers. In addition to Cowell, the celebrity panel includes his old Idol foil Paula Abdul, record producer/kingmaker L.A. Reid, and former Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole ... no wait, she is booted halfway through this premiere episode in favor of former Pussycat Doll Nicole Sherzinger.

The replacement has been explained, variously, as a result of Cole's difficult-to-understand accent (I understood her), her relative anonymity among Americans (is Nicole Sherzinger more famous?), and finally, a "lack of chemistry" with Paula Abdul.

The X Factor, American Idol, and The Voice are an incestuous little trio of singing competitions. American Idol started as Pop Idol in Britain but then moved to America; Cowell became a judge on American Idol but launched The X Factor back in the UK. Last season NBC premiered The Voice, which was the U.S.'s answer to The X Factor ... until the last night, when The X Factor made its American debut.

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The Premise: If you watched The Voice, you have a general idea about the premise for The X Factor. Prospective contestants perform in front of a live audience and four judges. In these early rounds, three out of four "yes" votes from the judges gets a contestant through to something called "boot camp." In boot camp, contestants will be sorted into four teams, and each team will be mentored by one of the judges. Ohhhh! I hope there is a sorting hat.

The Prize: Billed as "the largest prize in TV history," the winner of The X Factor will take home a $5 million recording contract and his or her own Pepsi commercial. The show underscores the awesomeness of this last prize with a retrospective Pepsi commercial with footage from stars past: Michael, Britney, Kanye, et al.

The Premiere: I was ready to snark and snark and snark, but the truth is I am a sucker for a well-constructed reality singing competition. Cowell knows what he's doing - this isn't his first rodeo, after all - and as long as you can fast forward through the commercials, The X Factor transcends "bearable" and becomes positively watchable.

There is plenty of raw talent, and we see more good singing than bad. One of the reasons I gave up on American Idol years ago was the interminable audition rounds featuring the worst of the worst. Sure, a weirdo or two makes it more fun, but I can't invest four hours a week watching bad singers embarrass themselves. The X Factor is fun, with the right mix of humor, hyperbole, and humanity.

High Points: The show is structured well, starting and ending on high notes of talent and using the weird and wacky as brief counter points, almost like a palate cleanser. Wednesday, the show opened with 13-year-old Rachel Crow, certainly a unique individual both in her talent and in her dress - an appropriately dressed 13-year-old who wants to be a pop star! Clearly her parents haven't seen Toddlers and Tiaras. Thank God. Crow's rendition of "Mercy" by Duffy is impressive and she gets through.

When a cartoonish young man named Siameze takes the stage he assures the judges that he lives for his art. When his performance begins, I can only describe it as Michael Jackson impersonator meets Prince impersonator meets James Brown impersonator. It's over-the-top campy, but compelling enough for the judges to put him through; Simon calls Siameze "talented, but deluded."

Stacey Francis, a 42-year-old single mom of two children, has been in a bad relationship for more than 10 years, and now that she is free she knows it's "now or never" to give her kids the future they deserve. She is beautiful and earnest, and her two kids are simply adorable, so we are already rooting for Stacey even before she opens her mouth to sing. And when she does? Wow--she brings the house down with her rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" by Aretha Franklin.

The last singer of the night is Chris Rene, a 28-year-old trash collector who is 70 days sober from an alcohol/cocaine/meth addiction. When he tells the judges that he will perform an original song he wrote and composed called "Young Homey" fleeting looks of resignation pass over the faces of both Reid and Cowell. It only takes about three bars to wipe those looks away, because Chris Rene is clearly talented. The judges pass him through with four resounding ayes, but extract promises from Chris to stay sober.

Low Points: Featuring a bad singer or two is one thing, but the producers (including Cowell) decided to include footage of 43-year-old Geo Godley, who decided to drop the "trou" part of his baby blue faux-velour track suit during his terrible performance. Audience members left, as did Paula, in the middle of his pants-less screeching; bonus footage of a crew member standing at the bathroom door as we listen to Paula dry-heaving on the other side! It was tasteless all around.

Final Thoughts: I like the softer side of Simon Cowell, and it's on display here. I also think the show will play up the Cowell (talent scout) vs. Reid (producer/record exec) dynamic, and let Simon and Paula do their sort of soft-shoe, semi-romantic banter without making it seem like an epic throwdown. I am totally ambivalent about Nicole Sherzinger and hopefully she will turn that around as the season progresses.

The X Factor audition rounds continue at 7 p.m. tonight on Fox. Watch video excerpts from last night's episode online.

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