photo: FoxSo Simon Cowell's "The X Factor" returned to Fox for a second season Wednesday night. And the much-ballyhooed new judges (last year's models, Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger, have been very publicly replaced by the blonder, fresher faces of pop princesses Britney Spears and Demi Lovato) weren't the only drastic tweaks to the once-struggling show's format. Hated host Steve Jones was also gone--but NOT replaced--thus allowing the program to take on a voiceover-free, fly-on-the-wall, documentary-style feel, masterminded by the producers of MTV's "The Hills." The result was something that felt fresh, exciting, different from any other talent show on television (aside from maybe Oxygen's underrated "The Glee Project")...and it was about five gazillion times less garish and Vegas-y than Season 1. Simon might really be on to something this time.
photo: FoxBut naturally, most lookie-loos and rubberneckers didn't tune in for creative camera angles and cinéma vérité footage of backstage contestant shenanigans. They watched to see HOW BRITNEY DID, after months of serious doubts regarding whether the coddled and convservatorshipped star could handle the spontaneity of reality television. Oh, let's face it, most people really watched hoping to witness a TV trainwreck. But they didn't get one. Because Britney actually pulled this off, for the most part. Of course, this wasn't live television--Britney's best moments were heavy-handedly edited, and possibly even scripted. And in the hands of Fox's highly skilled editors, anyone can be manipulated to sound lucid. (Remember what a comic genius Steven Tyler first seemed like on "American Idol," before the live shows started and he ran out of critiques other than "beautiful"?) So of course, full judgment must be reserved until Britney is performing on "The X Factor" without a net. But I am giving her the benefit of the doubt, for now.
Britney's first true test as a judge--and the first sign that she might actually be able to handle this job--came when she had to face her ex-duet partner from her tour 10 years ago, a hard-luck 31-year-old named Don Philip. Don was a total emotional wreck the minute he reunited with his old friend Britney (who, to her credit, recognized Don right away--which is more than can be said for how Christina Aguilera reacted when her old colleague Tony Lucca auditioned on "The Voice" last season). But Britney kept it together, even when Don's audition of Beyonce's "Halo" went very, very awry.
Britney tells Don bad news
During Don's dreadful performance, a look of sadness clouded over Britney's face, then she nervously shifted her hand to her mouth, as she realized she'd soon have to tell Don some very bad news. When Don saw the pained, conflicted look in her eyes, he gasped in shock and cried out, "Britney! No!" But Britney did what she had to do, telling him flat-out, "Through the years, maybe you've gone through a lot of hardships and battles, but your voice really isn't up to the bar of the standards of 'The X Factor' and what we want."
Don left the show in tears, collapsing backstage. "Did you see Britney's eyes? I feel like I've hurt her. I never meant to hurt Britney! I'm so sorry, Britney." But Britney seemed to be faring much better after this emotionally charged incident.
Britney & Don 10 years agoWhen Simon rushed to Britney's side to ask her how she was holding up, she simply shrugged, "That was hard." And that was it. Really, if Britney can be this composed, and this honest, on the live shows, she could be an excellent judge.
Actually, Britney in general was much less of a wishy-washy softie than I'd expected, snarling one-liners like "I wanna know who let you onstage" to a lecherous 50-year-old breakdancer who made her "uncomfortable," and spitting out enough cold-hearted "NO's" to merit their own 45-second montage. ("And they say I'm the mean one!" laughed Simon.) As one contestant put it, "If you're gonna get shot down, it might as well be by Britney." And Britney shot a lot of people down.
Britney critiques a toxic performanceBut Britney had a fun side, too. She was pretty entertaining to look at--seriously, her never-ending series of elastic facial expressions was pretty much the reason why animated GIFs were invented. (We're talking half-lidded Janice-from-the-Muppets grins, furrowed-browed pen-chewing, curious bespectacled squinting, unhinged-jawed guffaws that provided clear views of her back molars, and open-mouthed silent screams of horror as she assessed rejects who made even K-Fed look talented.) Some of Brit Brit's muggy looks even managed to upstage fellow judge L.A. Reid's famous head-wobble.
photo: FoxBut it should be noted, this was not The Britney Show. In fact, based on Wednesday night's premiere, "The X Factor's" other new judge, Demi Lovato--who, at $1 million, is shockingly being paid only 1/15th of Britney's big salary--just might be the series' secret weapon. Not only did her can-do attitude (all sparkling eyes, sparkling teeth, and occasionally sparkling wit) make her a fun addition to the panel, but let's be frank: At barely age 20, the same age range as many of the show's contestants, the former Disney starlet is probably more relevant to most young viewers than the nearly 31-year-old Britney is these days.
Demi & Jillian (photo: Fox)One contestant who certainly found Demi relevant was 19-year-old underdog Jillian Jensen, who provided Demi with her own emotional TV moment. A fragile girl who'd been the target of horrifically cruel school bullying her entire life, Jillian emerged onstage shaking in front of her role model, proudly displaying her Demi-inspired "Stay Strong" tattoo. "Remember, we're on 'The X Factor' now, and the people who bullied us are home watching us on TV!" declared an encouraging Demi. After Jillian poured her pain, heart, soul, and literally her tears into a heart-rending cover of Jessie J's empowerment anthem "Who You Are," there wasn't a dry eye in the theater. Jillian was bawling, Demi was bawling, the crowd was bawling...even Simon Cowell was rendered temporarily speechless as he fanned his misty eyes with a piece of paper (the first time he'd ever cried during any talent show audition). Demi rushed onstage to embrace Jillian, who broke into huge, heaving sobs and held on to Demi like a drowning victim clinging to a life-raft. "When you sang, you broke my heart," Demi told Jillian. "To sing while you're crying is so brave. I can't wait for the bullies at home to see this."
So maybe Britney was supposed to be the star of the night, but at least equal billing went to Demi--and to Jillian. Yes, thankfully, the show wasn't all about the superstar judges, but about the show's potential future superstars--the contestants--as well. Not only did some other great singers grace the "X" stage, but the show's new aforementioned documentary-style approach captured some really juicy hyper-competitive drama offstage too, and that made for the some of the premiere's best moments.
Kaci, being cattyFor instance, there was pageant-y mean girl Kaci Newton, snickering at single mom Paige Thomas's ripped tights, launching a hissyfit when Paige's 1-year-old touched her pristine audition outfit with a sticky hand, and throwing serious shade at any female contestant that seemed like the slightest threat. Or there was poor fallen boy-band member Vincent Thomas, formerly of US5, attempting to dole out advice to a trio of snotty skaters named Emblem3--only for the Emblem3 punks to roll their eyes and call Vincent "super lame!" the instant he was out of earshot. And then there were the countless cutaway shots to skittish contestants waiting in the wings, freaking out as they watched one auditioner after another get rejected.
All of this made for great TV, as did these other standout Austin and San Francisco singers from Wednesday's show...
photo: FoxPaige Thomas - The 21-year-old single mom and nursing student whose tattered legwear was the earlier object of mean girl Kaci Newton's disapproval, Paige certainly won the approval of all four judges, ripped stockings and all. ("You look amazing," drawled Simon.) Paige was meek and teary when she first hit the stage as her little girl stood in the wings, but once she began belting Rose Royce/Mary J. Blige's "I'm Goin' Down," she transformed into a superhumanly confident pop diva. Britney called her "flawless," Demi called her "gorgeous," L.A. called her a "star" and compared to her Rihanna, and Simon called her "commercial with a capital C...one of my favorite ever auditions." The reaction shot of a ticked-off Kaci (who would soon be rejected by the judges after what Simon called a very "annoying" rendition of Katy Perry's "Firework") was PRICELESS.
Reed Deming - This Bieber-banged 13-year-old, already a tenacious veteran of Simon Fuller's "Boy Band For The Next Generation" and "Kidz Bop" talent searches, boldly declared, "I will crawl on broken glass for this" (while evil Kaci stood nearby, of course, giving him the side-eye). Reed's confidence faded a bit when he tried to sing a totally overcooked, overthought cover of Bruno Mars's "It Will Rain," but when Simon gave him a second chance, Reed's version of Bruno's "Grenade" showed more promise. And dang, there was no denying that the kid was cute. Demi and Britney both said he was "adorable," L.A. said Reed's personality was "larger than this building," and Simon predicted, "We could be looking at a future pop star here." But why do I think Simon's going to put Reed in a prefab boy band, in an attempt to create the American equivalent of One Direction?
Emblem3 - Speaking of boy bands, the bratty bros of Huntington Beach's Emblem3 want you all to know that THEY ARE NOT A BOY BAND. They told the above-mentioned Vincent Thomas as much, and not very nicely. But, you know, they are boys, and they're in a band, so you come to your own conclusion. Anyhoo, the trio's performance of the original track "Sunset Blvd." featured more rapping than actual singing, but hey, that worked for both Astro and Chris Rene last year, and the tune did have the audience going nuts. "I don't like you, I love you!" raved L.A., as he predictably bobbed his head to and fro. Demi flirted with them while Simon paternally, protectively warned her to stay away from the skater bad boys. Simon compared Vincent Thomas unfavorably to Emblem3, while the E3 boys of course smirked obnoxiously. Emblem3 do have some sort of X-factor, but the edit job they got here has already positioned them as the show's villains, so if they do get to the voting rounds, I don't suspect they'll last. Old US5 fans won't be voting for them, that's for sure.
Quatrele Da'An Smith - A cake decorator by day, drag queen by day, QDS wore a wedding dress to his audition because he "came to get married to 'The X Factor.'" Then he let it rip on Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." And what QDS lacked in vocal ability--and let's be honest, he lacked a lot--he more than made up for with show(wo)manship. Britney blew him kisses and said, "You were a little off-key, but for the most part, you were entertaining!" Demi cried out, "I love you...and I love your lipstick color!" Simon described him as, "If Madonna, Bobby Brown, and Dracula had a child." Apparently Simon actually meant this as a compliment, because he then added, "In a weird way, I quite liked you!" And then, flabbergastingly, Britney, Demi, AND Simon said yes to Quatrele, while lone dissenter L.A. looked aghast. "You guys have gone mad," L.A. grumbled. "Sometimes you have to embrace the madness. Today, I say yes," Simon countered. Hmmm, seems like Britney and Demi are rubbing off on Simon already.
Jennel Garcia - This 18-year-old girl-next-door seemed all sweet, but to quote Britney, it turned out she's not that innocent. Because when this budding rock 'n' roll princess started belting out her fiery cover of Grace Potter's "Paris," she completely turned into another person--a SEXY person! The girl was all hair and hips and lips...and crazy vocal cords. L.A. called her a "feisty little fireball." Britney flashed one of her gaping-mouthed surprised expressions and remarked, "I was NOT expecting that!" Demi called her "absolutely incredible." And Simon summed it all up with: "What's missing on the pop charts is a young Pat Benatar. I really like the concept of making a record with someone like that." I like that concept too. Keep on rockin', Jennel.
So there you have it--a fantastic start for a show that, frankly, I thought was in serious trouble after an uneven first season. Will episode two be this good? Will Britney and Demi--and, more importantly, the contestants--continue to impress? I sure hope so. And I sure know I'll be watching.