'The X Factor' recap: Did the premiere live up to the hype?
After hearing so much about "The X Factor" these last few months -– Simon Cowell left "American Idol" to help bring the show, a hit in Britain, to the U.S.! Cowell and fellow "Idol" defector Paula Abdul would reunite at the judging table! British pop star Cheryl Cole was out as a judge; Pussycat Dolls veteran Nicole Scherzinger was in! -– you could be forgiven for feeling burned out on it before it even hit the air.
"Does the world really need another talent-competition show?" you might have found yourself wondering.
Regardless of the answer to that perfectly reasonable question, the premiere of "X Factor" on Wednesday night indicated that, in a TV landscape already crammed with such shows ("American Idol," "America's Got Talent," "The Voice" and countless more), "The X Factor" -- on which solo and group acts as young as 12 and as old as they come compete for a $5-million recording contract and are mentored by the show's judges -- may stand out for its wisdom, sobriety and heart.
Whereas audition rounds on other shows often have you scrambling for the remote, "The X Factor's" back-to-back audition-episode debut had me repeatedly reaching for the Kleenex box.
It provided perfectly calibrated back-stories, making you care about the contestants before they sang a single note and somehow making fresh even the most tired storylines: the poor kid who wants to provide a better life for her family, the battered single mom giving her dreams one last chance, the former addict who's piecing it together for the sake of his kid.
It had judges who were knowledgeable, opinionated and authoritative without being unnecessarily nasty. Yes, even Cowell! And don't let the bald head and funky glasses fool you: Fourth judge L.A. Reid is no empty-jargon-spewing Randy Jackson.
And while the producers provided the requisite segment poking fun at a parade of talentless hopefuls, they at least had the decency to make these musically challenged unfortunates seem in on the joke.
True, the show's opening sequence is way over the top (are the producers looking for talented aliens on Mars?) and host Steve Jones' accent (he's Welsh) had me imagining him wrestling crocodiles (I know, that guy was Australian, but whatever). But the producers have earned back points for letting a big X thwomp indicate the show's return after each commercial break, rather than some trademark musical passage that will lodge in our heads forever.
OK, so which were the acts that made me weep? There were four:
Supercute 13-year-old Rachel Crow lives in a two-bedroom home with her family of six and would use her winnings to get them more comfortable digs. "I'm a girl. I need my own bathroom," she said, before singing a rousing rendition of Duffy's "Mercy" that got the crowd on its feet.
Then there was single mom Stacy Francis, who at 42 had all but given up her dreams of singing success. Back in her late 20s and early 30s, she told us, she was involved with a guy who told her she wasn't good enough and that she was too old to make it. And now, with a 5-month-old and a 3-year-old, she's reduced to shutting herself in the bathroom after tucking in her kids and belting out songs by Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. This audition is her last shot, she said, telling Cowell, "I don't want to die with this music in me." Then she let fly with a passionate "Natural Woman" that Reid said stirred his soul and Cowell called one of the best auditions he's ever heard.
Marcus Canty, a 20-year-old singer who's mom gave him a two-year window to make it in music before going to college, was pure charm singing Stevie Wonder's "I Wish." The crowd's response left him on the floor, looking up gratefully at the heavens. He wasn't the only one who felt grateful: The judges compared him to Bobby Brown and Usher and yanked that rapidly closing time-window wide open, sending him through to the next round.
And last was 28-year-old trash hauler Chris Rene, just 70 days out of rehab and anxious to provide a good example and stability for his toddler son. Performing his own (startlingly good) song, "Young Homie," Rene impressed the initially skeptical judges, who made him promise to stay clean. Afterward, he told the camera that the best day of his life was when his son was born. The second best day was when he got clean. The third best day? He was living it.
What did you think of the show? Do you think you'll add "The X Factor" to your regular TV watch list?
-- Amy Reiter
Photo: From left, Paula Abdul, L.A. Reid, Nicole Scherzinger and Simon Cowell at the Seattle judging round of "The X Factor" airing Wednesday on FOX. Credit: Ray Mickshaw / FOX.