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'X Factor' formula follows 'American Idol' script

Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul attend at a screening event for the new TV series The X-Factor on Sept. 14 in Los Angeles.

Associated Press

Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul attend at a screening event for the new TV series The X-Factor on Sept. 14 in Los Angeles.

They might as well hang a sign on the door at the Fox network: The time for playing nice is over.

"You are talented, but you are deluded," Simon Cowell tells one singer, who takes the stage like an amped-up love child of Prince and Rick James.

"I just witnessed a nightmare," Paula Abdul moans, shell-shocked after another contestant deliberately exposes his, um, naughty bits during an audition.

These are the juicy moments awaiting viewers when they show up for The X Factor; former American Idol judge Simon Cowell's attempt to Xerox his successful singing competition in England while tackling the last challenge left for him in TV:

Beating Idol at its own game.

"If I thought we couldn't beat these (rival singing) shows — I know this sounds very arrogant — I wouldn't do it," Cowell told me in June, when he visited Miami to audition semifinalists unearthed by producers in April. "(American Idol) has literally burned the memory of Simon. But I think that's hopefully a good thing; if people miss you, you're gonna come back and give them what they want."

I haven't seen the full episodes airing tonight and Thursday, so it's tough to say what X Factor offers. (It's also impossible to say how much it will show auditioner Amanda Puyot, a St. Petersburgh High School student whose Miami tryouts I watched in April and June.)

But based on 95 minutes of material made available to critics, I've got a few impressions.

Like Idol, X Factor seems to pretend its many pre-auditions don't exist. Auditioners in Miami faced several tryouts before nameless producers at a cattle call audition in April, with a select number invited back to perform on camera in June before a live audience.

The June performances also featured superstar judges Cowell, Abdul, Antonio "L.A." Reid and Nicole Scherzinger.

Which means that, however embarrassing some of the show's contestants may be, they passed several rounds of tryouts. In Miami, auditioners were told to wear the same clothes in June they wore in April; the preview footage I saw edited those days into a seamless whole, leaving questions about whether the judges knew who they were about to see and what they were about to do.

Certainly, someone did.

Likewise, X Factor seems to continue Idol's blend of personal stories with onstage performances. A vivacious 13-year-old admitted straight up, "my family has, like, no money," as motivation for winning the show's $5 million prize. Another guy took the stage fresh out of rehab, tugging at heartstrings with a story of trying to impress his young son through success in sobriety.

I didn't see an explanation for why British pop star Cheryl Cole was removed as a judge after the first auditions ("I said to do the U.K. show, where I thought she'd be more comfortable; she obviously didn't want to," Cowell said to me in Miami).

And while the clips seemed to play up disagreements among judges — Reid's curt attitude often leaves him competing with Cowell for status at the show's resident S.O.B. — there is less ridiculing of contestants obviously brought onstage as comic relief.

In an odd way, much of X Factor's genesis has felt a bit Oedipal; bad boy Cowell's ruthless attempt to build a show he owns and controls to capitalize on his Idol-born celebrity. You sense he wouldn't be disappointed if his show eclipsed Idol in the U.S. the way it did in Britain, where X Factor replaced the original Pop Idol.

"This format, when it works, is the best show in the world," said Cowell, who has appeared everywhere from GQ magazine to the cover of USA Today to publicize his new venture. "It's all dependent on the judges having chemistry, the contestants being good … 'cause if everyone's terrible, it's not gonna be a good show."

The X Factor airs two-hour episodes at 8 tonight and Thursday on WTVT-Ch. 13.

'X Factor' formula follows 'American Idol' script 09/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 9:21am]
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