Critically speaking, the differences between “The X Factor” — Simon Cowell’s go-it-alone talent showcase — and “American Idol” are minor, but nevertheless significant. If anything, a preview reflects a series even more emotionally manipulative and over-produced than its predecessor — beginning with the fact the only limit is age 12 and older. Even amid a glut of talent competitions, Fox’s promotional machinery ought to make this a formidable placeholder through the fall, if not — with apologies to “Idol” sponsor Coke — as big as the real thing.
One can certainly understand why “Idol’s” producers feel more than a little irritated about the similarities, resulting in litigation dating back to its premiere in the U.K. Beyond that, having another singing show risks diluting a franchise that Fox has otherwise carefully managed.
Yet there’s no denying Cowell brings something extra to the judging process — less due to his trademark bitchiness than his ability to succinctly articulate criticism as relatively few on TV can.
Eager to illustrate the show’s breadth, early on the auditions present a 13-year-old girl and a couple of senior citizens (the latter sequence seems as if Stanley Kubrick directed it), amid a mix of characters as eager for fleeting exposure as the $5-million prize. In one case, that includes actual exposure, which doesn’t stop the producers from rewarding the stunt by including it, with only a carefully placed “X” to obscure the nudity.
That Cowell chose to reunite with Paula Abdul — his frequent foil on “Idol” — only underscores his determination to win and commitment to being a showman. Moreover, sparring between Cowell and music exec L.A. Reid reflects more back-and-forth than anything he engaged in with Abdul and Randy Jackson on “Idol.” If only the producers didn’t take the skirmish an unnecessary step further by setting the montage to “Eye of the Tiger” to pound the point home.
And so it goes. The same mix of sob stories, as anxious relatives looking on from the wings. And if there’s not quite a Susan Boyle or Paul Potts moment (though one in particular comes reasonably close), the tears flow freely, and one or two genuinely stirring performances emerge.
Once again the host, Steve Jones — apparently the British pronunciation of “Ryan Seacrest” — is attractive but a bland non-factor, except that Jones seems to know his place, for now. And while Nicole Scherzinger was a late replacement for Cheryl Cole — who’s included in the premiere — other than pretty faces neither adds much to the proceedings.
Not that it matters. Fox’s film studio has certainly made a lot of money off a certain team of mutants, and now the TV unit can be thankful for its own “X” man.