Britney Spears
Credit: Nino Munoz/Fox

If, as now seems the common wisdom, music competition shows are more about the judges than the contestants, The X Factor could hardly have done better in enlisting Britney Spears as a new arbiter of who can cram the most notes into a musical phrase. Spears embodies as much of that indefinable quality that lifts a singer into super-duper-stardom, plus… well, she’s Britney, which means she brings to any professional endeavor that mixture of sweetness, shrewdness, nervous energy, unpretentiousness, and, occasionally, defiance that only finds its full flower when she’s trying most earnestly to be a surrogate for the masses. Which is what she managed to do on her X Factor debut, even while she was being treated like pop royalty.

Spears got the star treatment on The X Factor season premiere on Wednesday night, billed last, introduced last when walking to the judges’ chairs with Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid, and Demi Lovato: It built to her. She did just fine, rattling off a variety of “No”s to the punching-bag mediocrities the producers let in for comic relief, and offering sensibly measured praise and a few out-and-out raves the rest of the time. In other words, she didn’t overdo it, she looked comfortable, and I’m including the moment when she was confronted with an old duet partner, Don Philip, whose voice was shot. You’re not going to convince me for a second that the producers didn’t vet Philip’s appearance on that stage without first getting Spears’ okay, so it just made for a mildly pathetic spectacle on his part.

Lovato was lively, free with smiles, and juuuust this side of cocky. She held up well for most of the two hours, teasing Simon skillfully. Her carefully arranged moment arrived at the end of the evening, when Jillian Jensen, who said she’d been bullied a lot over the years, made one perfect tear fall down Lovato’s cheek. Jillian’s voice was refreshingly raw for a show like X Factor, and she deserved her pass through to the next round. But I don’t think that a measure of skill is, as Lovato put it, that Jillian has “the ability to stand on the stage and sing while you’re crying” — if anything, that’s a reason to tweak the young woman for being a tad unprofessional and to buck up, you’re in the majors now. But tear-jerking is one reason shows like X Factor exist: Build ’em up, tear ’em down, hour after hour.

The hokey narratives imposed on some contestants almost ruined the moments of pure quality. Take the night’s first example: Paige Thomas, a fine R&B belter who was ridiculed in Austin, Texas, backstage by Kaci Newton, who whispered to her sister (and therefore to the cameras) that Thomas was just another minor roadblock to Kaci’s path to inevitable stardom, and that Thomas had “a run in her pantyhose”! This little stitiched-together non-cat-fight did not prevent Thomas from receiving her proper showcase and judges’ praise, but it set up the tiresome inevitability of revealing Kaci as a caterwauling mediocrity. The lesson was hammered home: Judge not lest ye be judged, kids.

It’s this kind of reality-TV imposed drama that almost makes one appreciate the storytelling power of scripted junk like NCIS. And the parade of the talentless, the sad, and the pathetic, waved onstage for Simon to deliver canned-sounding put-downs, makes X Factor, like American Idol, so dreary to watch.

Thank goodness Reid keeps his comments mostly on-point and unexaggerated. And it looks as though Lovato and Spears are going to do well. Once the preminary carnival is over — are people really going to be talking tomorrow about Quatrele Da’an Smith, in a white wedding gown and howling Lady Gaga, as though he’s a truly refreshing novelty? — we’ll get to see whether Britney and company can sustain some their best judgments and coax a true talent into the winner’s circle.

Twitter: @kentucker