Last year, following a teary goodbye on the "American Idol" Season 9 finale, Simon Cowell abandoned the show he built (or, some would say, the show that built him) to launch his own not-entirely-dissimilar Fox talent competition, "The X Factor." It was one of the biggest career gambles in television history--and not just because it led to a lawsuit against Fox by "Idol's" creator. Simon not only strutted away from a $36 million "Idol" paycheck (and a rumored offer of $100 million!) and the top TV show in America, but he vacated his judging posts on "Britain's Got Talent" and the British version of "The X Factor" to concentrate on his new U.S. series. Simon's "X Factor U.K." castmate Cheryl Cole also quit to join the American "X Factor" cast--only to be unceremoniously fired and shipped back to Britain after a couple of Stateside tapings. Additionally, legendary music executive L.A. Reid left his cushy gig at Island Def Jam to join "The X Factor USA," and Nicole Scherzinger, Cheryl's replacement, ditched her judging job on "The Sing-Off." And finally, Sony Music ponied up $5 million, the biggest cash prize in reality competition history.
So now Simon is back and ready to put his money (a reported new $75 million salary), and Sony's money, where his big mouth is. And he has also reunited with former "Idol" castmate Paula Abdul, whose last TV appearance with Simon was when she roasted/toasted him during that aforementioned "Idol" sendoff. However, "The X Factor" is entering an already overcrowded reality market filled with such shows as NBC's surprise hit "The Voice," which features a similar judges-as-mentors gimmick, and of course "American Idol," which has somehow survived (and in fact thrived) without both Simon and Paula. Uh-oh. Maybe Simon made a major mistake.
Well, this Wednesday "The X Factor USA" held its world premiere, a full week before its September 21 Fox network debut, at the ArcLight movie theater in Hollywood. It was the first chance for select members of the public to watch the show--on a big screen, with a sound system that amplified the contestants' every vocal flaw--and the question on the minds of everyone in the cinema, including myself, was: Was it all worth it, Simon?
In a word, yes. In two words, heck yes. This was real popcorn TV, people. Simon may have recently claimed that the folks at Fox would've been happy if he and Paula had remained on "American Idol" forever, but those Fox execs ought to be pretty pleased now. Judging from the hooting and hollering by fans inside the theater Wednesday night--and judging from the compulsively watchable highlights shown from "X Factor" audition cities Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, and Seattle--Simon has done it again. His gamble is paying off. He and Fox seem to have another hit on their hands.
I admit that after all the "X Factor" hype that had been stirring practically since Simon announced he was leaving "Idol," I was a tad skeptical. Part of me even might have wanted the show to fail, just a little, just to knock that egomaniac Simon back down to earth. But now that I've watched this screening, I'm totally drinking the "X Factor" kool-aid (or Pepsi, as it were). September 21 honestly can't come soon enough for me.
But if you're still unconvinced, read on. And then set your DVRs for next week.
6 REASONS TO WATCH:
1) "The X Factor" is "Idol" on steroids - It's no secret that Simon Cowell has a big ego and a big salary...and now he has the big, big show to match. Everything about "The X Factor" is overwhelmingly oversized: the live auditions inside an amphitheatre, the record-number audition turnouts, the massive production values. And the talent pool is mighty large, too. At this rate, next season Simon should really consider holding the "X Factor" premiere at an IMAX theater.
2) Paula Abdul is straight up - On "Idol," Paula was known for her less-lucid moments (critiquing a tune Jason Castro had yet to sing, fantasizing out loud about dangling David Archuleta's squishy head from her rearview mirror, drawing Sharpie mustaches on Simon's face, lip-synching to her own song, clapping like a circus seal). But during the "X Factor" premiere, Paula was on point. Oh, don't worry, she was still loopy and lovable, and she and Simon still exhibited that old-married-couple chemistry. (In fact, when one actual old married couple tried out on the show, Simon quipped, "That could be us in 10 years!") But Paula seemed to be taking her new job seriously--as well she should, as it's a rare second chance for which she should be extremely grateful--and word is she'll even have a hand in this elaborate show's choreography, too.
3) Simon has finally met his match - If there is anyone in the music industry with an ego that can eclipse Simon's, it just might be L.A. Reid's. From the moment I saw L.A.'s slo-mo glamour shots of him staring, stern and steely-eyed, into the unflinching "X Factor" camera lens, I knew he meant business. And when I watched a montage of him repeatedly sparring with Simon, I could see why these two alpha-males were seated far apart, on opposite ends of the judges' table. L.A. may be the real "mean judge" of this show, and Simon better watch his black-T-shirted back.
4) Cheryl Cole actually gets screen time - After the scandal that ensued when Cheryl got the boot (supposedly she and Simon still aren't on speaking terms), I'd assumed that she'd be written out the show entirely and never spoken of again, kind of like Richie Cunningham's older brother on "Happy Days" or that first little brother on "The Partridge Family." But instead the British beauty was heavily featured in "The X Factor's" Los Angeles segments...and guess what? Cheryl did a fabulous job, and her supposedly problematic accent was completely intelligible. Sure, when she was suddenly replaced by Nicole and no explanation was given for her mysterious disappearance, it was a letdown; it's a shame she didn't get to stick around and prove herself this season. But at least she didn't totally end up on the cutting-room floor.
5) There will be drama - You dig classic bad auditions? Well then, you'll adore Xander Alexander, a chip-shouldered drama king who cited "Whitney Houston before she lost it" as his main influence; described his style as "Donald Trump meets Martha Stewart without the jail time meets Britney Spears meets Beyonce without the ugly husband"; started mouthing off to Simon the minute he hit the stage; and then burst into tears (which Paula accused him of faking) when the judges rejected him. Or maybe you'll be amused by pants-dropping weirdo Geo Godley, who full-frontal flashed the audience while warbling his completely misleadingly titled original song "I'm A Stud"--prompting a disgusted Paula to flee into the hallway, suffering from dry heaves. And if you're the type of reality viewer more moved by weepy back stories, then make sure you have some two-ply tissues at the ready this season, because many hard-luck contestants shared tales of spousal abuse, childhood poverty, struggling single parenthood, and drug addiction during the premiere's emotionally charged 90 minutes.
6) Simon Cowell is best judge on reality TV. Period. - Thanks to Simon, it now seems every TV talent show must have one surly, cantankerous, straight-shooting Brit on its judging panel. "America's Got Talent" has Piers Morgan, "Dancing With The Stars" has Len Goodman, "So You Think You Can Dance" has Nigel Lythgoe, "Top Model" has Nigel Barker, and Gordon Ramsay has practically become his own reality brand. There's a reason for this: Simon set the template for reality judges long ago because he's simply the best in the biz. And he still is. It's nice to welcome him back.
6 CONTESTANTS TO WATCH:
1) Stacy Francis - Stacy got some serious screen time in an eight-minute promo that ran on Fox last weekend, but the 42-year-old single mother's full audition was even more impressive. There wasn't a dry eye in the ArcLight as she shared her sob story of emotional abuse, missed chances, and deferred dreams, and then sang her heart out, her voice brimming with pain and life experience. It's already easy to imagine Stacy in the "X Factor" finale.
2) Simone Battle - With her bootylicious fierceness and red satin booty shorts, this 21-year-old baby diva impressed Simon with her sassy style (intriguingly self-described as a mix between "a cheerleader, a hipster, and a drag queen") and feisty rendition of the Pussycat Dolls' fame-fantasy anthem "When I Grow Up." (Cheryl was on the panel that day, so PCD's Nicole missed this performance, sadly.) Perpetual contrarian L.A. Reid was inexplicably unenthusiastic, but Simon loved Simone's fearlessness and foxiness, and he went to battle for Miss Battle. Luckily, this is one L.A./Simon battle in which Simon prevailed, because I think Simone could be a real star.
3) Marcus Canty - This handsome 20-year-old soulman currently mows lawns for a living, but he may soon be mowing down the competition. After Marcus delivered an infectiously groovy performance of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish," L.A. likened him to a prime-era Bobby Brown, while Simon compared him to Usher. But the two judges agreed on one thing: Marcus has the X factor. And he may be just the type of current, marketable, dancing-wonder R&B sensation that, for whatever reason, "American Idol" has never been able to find.
4) Melanie Amaro - This 18-year-old girl-next-door didn't look like a pop star, but when she opened her mouth, out boomed a big, belty, Beyonce-esque voice that left the audience and judges stunned. "You have the gift. Everything I walked away from for 'The X Factor,' you made it worth it," L.A. told her. Simon said contestants like Melanie are the very reason he started this show in the first place. And perhaps the best compliment came from Melanie's adoring little sister, who cried out excitedly through tears, "You are my role model! You are my role model!" Aw. Many viewers watching Melanie at home may soon think the same thing.
5) Chris Rene - Clean and sober for only 70 days at the time of his audition, this 28-year-old recovering drug addict and father of a toddler took a risk by singing an original hip-hop number about his troubled past, but it paid off. The man had swagger for days, and the song was surprisingly solid. "I've worked with some of the greatest hip-hop artists, and all of my boys would be proud of me telling you that you are the truth," raved L.A. Simon said he felt like was "meeting a star for first time," and told Chris, "Maybe you need the show, or maybe we need you." L.A. made Chris promise to stay on the right track if the show put him through, and Chris gave his word. Frankly, I'm a little worried for Chris; 70 days of sobriety is not very long, and the stress of competing on live TV might be a bit much for this guy. But I'm rooting for him, and I bet a lot of America will be too.
6) Siameze Floyd - He is Siameze, if you please. And this flashy fellow certainly was a crowd-pleaser. The androgynous showboater with a blown-out Rihanna bob and funky James Brown kick-split moves gave an unhinged performance of Rick James's glittery "Give It To Me Baby" that at times bordered on being a circa-Dirty Mind Prince impersonation, while his shrill shrieking made the Darkness's Justin Hawkins sound like Satchmo. But Siameze was utterly fascinating, and in terms of sheer showmanship, he was the winner of the night. Cheryl Cole couldn't decide if he was "genius or weird." Simon called him "talented but deluded." But, against lone dissenter L.A.'s adamant wishes, Siameze made it through to the next round. If he ends up winning the $5 million grand prize, maybe he can use some of that money to fund his other dream: creating his own "Siamenergy" drink. Maybe Siamenergy can even be the official beverage of Season 2!
Will you watch "The X Factor" when it debuts on Fox next week?
[photos courtesy of Fox]