September 25, 2011

TV: The X Factor (Fox, Wed/Thu 8)

It's a little hard to judge a show like The X Factor on the basis of a first episode, since the competition will move through a variety of different phases, some of which will vary more than the audition phase does from American Idol. But at this point, it's hard to see the show as much more than Idol Redux.

In the role of Simon Cowell, we have Simon Cowell, who can be just as cutting as ever, but who's also playing up his softer, sentimental side with the better contestants. In the role of Randy Jackson, we have L.A. Reid, which is a significant step up; Reid actually offers comments with more insight than Jackson's typical "it didn't work for me, dawg". He's also capable of giving Simon a run for his money in the bluntness department, and the show is clearly interested in setting up a Simon/L.A. rivalry.

The role of Paula Abdul is now being shared, which seems appropriate, since during her Idol days, you never knew whether you were going to get the sweet, charming, relatively lucid Paula or the incoherent, babbling, "what the hell is she on" Paula. Lucid Paula is being played, somewhat surprisingly, by Paula herself, on her very best, at least in the first few days of auditions; Loopy Paula is being played by Nicole Scherzinger, who so far doesn't have much to offer.

(For the Los Angeles auditions only, the fourth judge was Cheryl Cole, who was abruptly fired and replaced by Scherzinger, to no appreciably significant difference.)

Like Idol, the audition shows give us a mix of really good singers and ghastly ones; what's new here is the age range -- lower limit of 12 and no upper limit -- and the fact that auditions are held in front of an audience of 3-4,000 people. That can make the really good auditions more exciting, but it makes the mean ones feel even more cruel.

Host Steve Jones is blandly efficient in the Ryan Seacrest mold (though he's much prettier), but we won't really know how good he is until later in the competition. And it's only in those later rounds that the show's more significant breaks from the Idol formula will become apparent. At this point, you will probably enjoy this show to just about the same degree that you enjoy Idol.

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