‘The X-Factor’ review: And did we miss Simon Cowell?


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Watching, in recent weeks, as Simon Cowell explained that “The X-Factor” is a completely different show than “American Idol” was a bit like watching Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” explain to her neophyte assistant why two turquoise belts of similar width and style represent utterly distinct looks. Um, OK, if you say so, Miranda.

If the 90-minute preview made available to the media before Wednesday’s premiere on Fox is any indication, “The X Factor” is essentially “American Idol” with a wider participant base and judges who promise to be, aggregately and individually, better than most (though not this last) seasons of “American Idol.” Not only has Paula Abdul taken whatever steps were necessary to appear fit and consistently sensible, the addition of music producer L.A. Reid brings a discerning ear and gravitas to the table that balances Cowell much more evenly than Randy Jackson ever did.


This means, alas, that early on we are treated to a “he says yes, I say no” montage and mini-interview with Cowell saying, “I’ve met my match,” after which the two men do nothing but agree. But steps must be taken to establish Brand X and this is one of them.

When the show opens, in L.A. for open auditions, the fourth judge is Girls Aloud star Cheryl Cole, but by the time they move to Seattle, Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls has taken her place. Cowell has said he replaced Cole because she seemed “bewildered,” but on a first impression, she is much more interesting than Scherzinger, if only for her fabulous Geordie accent. Scherzinger certainly knows her way around reality, having judged on the U.K. version and “The Sing-off” as well as competing on “Dancing With the Stars,” but in early scenes she seems more interested in tearing up and out-glamming “Idol’s” Jennifer Lopez than bringing much to the commentary.

Not that there’s much to say in the early days. Like “American Idol,” “The X Factor” begins with the cattle calls — lots of shots of the crowds, the signs, the hopefuls, the fans — although, this being a new show, things are mercifully accelerated. Viewers are spared the vast quivering middle and see only the very bad and the very good (or at least the quite promising), so there’s not much for the judges to do except admire or dismiss.

As with “American Idol,” the heart of the matter remains the astonishing talent that emerges from the roiling tank-top-clad masses, hand-wringing families and colorful back stories, and there appears to be talent a’plenty, including one performance (which I will not spoil by naming) that could easily have been the winning final song of any singing competition.

Where “The X-Factor” differs from “American Idol” is that it is more self-consciously a television show. Not surprisingly, kids are a huge factor, particularly in the beginning, as is the tension between the two male judges. Watching performers whose personalities perhaps outweigh their talents, Cowell’s eyes narrow appraisingly — this may not be a possible winner of the $5-million recording contract and Super Bowl Pepsi commercial, but he or she will no doubt bring some drama to the show, so I say yes.

Which is not a bad thing; if nothing else, it extends the possibility of criticism, and this is how the show’s creators plan to set it apart from “Idol,” on which many people felt last season that the judges had gone soft. But when a man is allowed to “sing” a song about being a stud while shaking his presumably naked genitals at the audience (on the screen they are covered by an X) without the judges stopping him or a woman who may or may not be challenged by pharmaceuticals is shown continually addressing the camera about how great a singer she is, the narrative manipulation suggests the word “desperate.”


As the show continues, other differences may emerge — Cowell has said the judges will act as mentors to the contestants — but for now the ratings will gauge two things: How big an appetite for singing competitions Americans still have and how much they really missed Simon Cowell.


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— Mary McNamara