Retooled X Factor excels when focusing on contestants, stumbles when hyping Britney Spears
The blonde mean girl who turned out to be a terrible singer. The scrappy single mom who commanded the stage like a new school Rhianna. The leopard skin-tights-wearing hopeful whose story about being bullied nearly made mean judge Simon Cowell cry.
These were the stand out moments which made Fox's retooled version of The X Factor a show worth watching Wednesday night -- despite the months of hype publicizing the debut of new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato.
One of X Factor's biggest problems is that it's in large measure a tweaked copy of Fox's biggest singing competition, American Idol. So there are really only two big areas where the show can distinguish itself -- in the contestants and its judging panel.
On Wednesday, fans got a taste of how the show has amped up its look at contestants, building footage from backstage into mini storylines for its most notable singers, while whizzing speedily through the also-rans brought on mostly for freakshow appeal.
That's how blondiful, 20-something bank teller Kaci Newton became the show's villain of the night, secretly insulting single mom/Rhianna clone Paige Thomas while talking up her own beauty. It was a small surprise that Newton fell short, offering a version of Katy Parry's Firework that had Cowell noting it sounded like she was "dying."
We also saw former boy band singer Vincent Thomas tout his experience and performance triumphs only to dog it onstage. And 50-year-old Shawn Armenta -- who claimed to have a practice regimen of hours a day over more than a year to prepare for this moment -- performed so badly Spears demanded he not even look at her. "I feel uncomfortable with you even staring at me," the pop diva said, subtly noting the unhinged man's resemblance to a pervy stalker.
Viewers learned quickly: if a contestant was boasting about their prowess, odds are they would eat it when the time came to perform. And too many vocalists seemed to be passed forward based on their image and conformation to current trends; the Justin Bieber lookalike, Rhianna clone and a Lady Gaga-inspired drag queen all made the cut, despite offering vocals in some cases that weren't much better than those given the boot.
And the show's attempt to make Spears look tough -- cutting together all her negative comments into one montage -- only revealed how hard X Factor is working to make her interesting. The sparring between Lovato and Cowell was much more vivid, an odd uncle/niece dynamic which adds energy ("You're gonna need a breath mint," she told Cowell during one exchange that made it into ads for the show).
Spears got even more attention when an old duet partner, Don Philip, showed up to prove why he fell off the edge of the industry after singing with the pop diva on an early record 10 years ago. "You voice isn't really up to par with the standards of The X Factor," Spears said, in a moment shown minutes after the panel put forth a drag queen who seemed similarly tone challenged. As Philip dissolved into tears backstage, the circle of showbiz degradation was complete.
What I and most every other viewer didn't miss: Ousted judges Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger, whose firing along with ill-fitting host Steve Jones now seems like a shrewd move indeed.
The heavy handed editing -- including what seemed like fake crowd noises and silences -- made me wonder what will happens when the program's live shows begin. I'm also wondering how Spears will come across without the help from producers, because in interviews she still seems a bit disconnected and tentative.
Still Wednesday's debut was a strong move forward, knitting together the early auditions into a memorable montage of dreams fulfilled and hopes dashed, gilded with the antics of a high-powered judging panel.
Now all they have to do is pick a winner who can sell a few records.