Simon Cowell, American Idol
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The logo and stage set for The X Factor are dominated by a gigantic red “X,” presumably filled with the blood of contestants Simon Cowell has deemed unworthy and had drained.

The X is meant to represent something more than “This is the best singer” (American Idol‘s purpose) or “This is the best act” (America’s Got Talent) or “This is the best voice” (um, The Voice). That X (which also sometimes turns blue during performances) is a symbol of the ineffable combination of talent, personality, and in-the-moment nerve that marks a true pop star. Or as Nicole Scherzinger put it, transcending grammar as she so often does, “It’s undescribable.”

This U.S. edition of the British hit features auditions, to be followed by mentoring, to be followed by a $5 million prize. On the Wednesday-night, two-hour premiere, X showcased some fine performances, including those of Rachel Crow, Stacy Francis, and Melanie Amaro. Add one or two more depending on your taste (sorry, but to me Marcus Canty sounded like a nice fellow doing an impression of Al Green singing Stevie Wonder), and that’s not much talent to hold one’s interest over two hours.

So The X Factor did what other such shows do. It larded on the joke acts — the vocally hapless; the reliable aren’t-old-people-funny? ageist stuff — that are passed through the vetting process to give judges Cowell, Paula Abdul, L.A. Reid, Scherzinger, and Cheryl Cole opportunities to make their do-you-believe-this? faces.

The X Factor auditions take place in gigantic-looking theaters around the country packed with audiences that give the best response, predictably, to the singers who belt melodies into the rafters. It was between cities in the editing that Cole was booted to make way for Scherzinger, just in time for her to remind us once again that It’s All About Nicole: “This is why I do this,” Scherzinger told Amaro. “People like you inspire me.”

The X Factor premiere was also carefully edited to climax with the narrative of Chris Rene. A substance abuser with 70 days’ sobriety, he overcame the judges’ initial skepticism — you wrote a song called “Young Homey,” really, kid? — only to wow the panel and the crowd with his modest but solid abilities and forthright earnestness. He, more than anyone else this evening, embodied what Cowell is trying to do to make The X Factor different from Idol and The Voice: The show is designed to allow the judges to bend some newcomer into a star with a hit single and a great backstory for interviewers.

Except that Chris Rene resisted such easy manipulation. His story was too raw, too real, for the judges — especially the sharp, realpolitik Reid and Cowell — to manipulate with mere reflexive cleverness. After all the judges had agreed to pass Rene to the next round, Reid spoke to the young man without condescension as though he were his NA sponsor, telling him politely but firmly that he was going to make sure Rene stayed on the straight and narrow. And Cowell added, with sudden, shocking sincerity, “Maybe you need the show and maybe we need you.”

True, and true.

Episode Recaps

Simon Cowell, American Idol
The X Factor
Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland, and Paulina Rubio judge Season 3.
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