The X Factor: American Idiots

Last night Fox unveiled its latest brilliant, innovative idea: A vote-based singing competition judged by Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. Who are the TV wizards who come up with these ideas??

So yes, haha, there's the joke: The X Factor is essentially Americal Idol with a new coat of paint and one of the walls knocked out to let in a little more light. Let's all make our American Idol comparisons now just so we're all on the same page.

Are they the same show? Basically, yes. Though The X Factor, imported from British television, is a bit more complicated, if you can use that word for shows like this, than its older brother. First off, X Factor allows anyone from ages 12 and up to come and debase themselves. This of course widens the contestant pool, but that perhaps doesn't actually matter in the end. To date, only one of the seven X Factor UK winners was born before 1983, and that fellow, Steve Brookstein, has been a Taylor Hicksian flop since his season ended. So basically the UK, and I think it's a safe bet America, will probably always go for one of the youngs. So why bother schlepping out the olds at all?

Well, for moments like this one, when a 42-year-old single mom came out and wail-blasted her way through an Aretha song and tore down the rafters. Or, I mean, she seemed to from the audience's perspective. At home it sounded like just a lot of shrieking and crying, but maybe I'm just an old cynical bastard who has seen this routine — albeit a younger version of it — a few too many times. Yes, I'm afraid my general Idol fatigue has crept into this show, which will later differentiate itself by having the judges mentor specific contestants and possibly place people into fabricated groups, but still has the same rhythm of meted-out joy peppered with splashy embarrassment that we've been seal-trained to expect from Idol. We've run through these emotions many times before, and the slightly different packaging only disguises their familiarity for a brief moment.

When you, or at least I, watch clips of the British X Factor auditions, which take place in an arena full of thousands rather than in Idol's small judges-only room, there's something circusy and fun about it, it's a bit foreign and remote. "Oh look how excited these wacky Isles-ers get about their singing shows!" But in much the same way Skins didn't work when it lost its othered Britishness and became boring old American, this Yankee X Factor just seems like another dopey thing, with everyone in the audience — reality TV-conditioned modern robots all — oohing and ahhing in a synthetic way, grimly complicit in and understanding of how to create a Moment on television. (The close-ups of individual audience members showed a dispiriting and vaguely distressing amount of for-the-cameras mugging. Just be natural, America!) The show has just lost a lot of its organic verve and excitement in its trip across the sea.

Funny, or fitting, then that the only fresh thing about the show was the Geordie-accented delight that is Ms. Cheryl Cole, a UK X Factor judge and pop star who was, unfortunately, fired from the US show after only two judging rounds. We saw one of those rounds, Los Angeles, in the first half of last night, and then Cole was unceremoniously pushed aside to allow room for American singing competition winner Nicole Scherzinger, a slightly lisping Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian hybrid who, despite possessing bonafide singing chops and some real world experience, came across as something of an empty nitwit. Scherzinger, an erstwhile member of pop-tart group The Pussycat Dolls, spent a good portion of her evening telling everyone it was her birthday and making them sing for her, as if it was cute or something. (It wasn't.) The seemingly far more modest and deceptively quirky Cole didn't seem the type to do that, and it's a shame we won't get to know her any better. We'll see her one more time in the Chicago auditions, and then that's it. Fade to black for Cheryl Cole. You wanted something new and original, Fox, well there it is! And then you fired her. Ah well.

This is all to say that other than a few wan highlights, America's big first dance with The X Factor felt like way more of a dull retread of glitter explosions past than it ever should have if it hopes to become the autumn Idol. And it would seem that TV audiences agree. Last night's much-heralded debut was handily beat in the ratings by the season premiere of Modern Family, with less than half of Idol's season ten premiere audience tuning in to see their old pal Simon do his new thing. Sure, sure, Idol had its ten-year brand to rest on and The X Factor is just getting started (the first season of American Idol, during the summer of 2002, debuted with lower numbers than X Factor did last night), but I just don't quite feel the buzz or heat or electricity or whatever canned phrase you want to use about shows like this emanating from this oddly zombie-like project.

I'll probably tune back in around the time that sem-finalists are picked and sent to Judges' Bootcamp, but this unrolling of audtionees just feels tiring. We just did this! We just crowned Scotty the Body McLockthemdoors. You want us to do this all over again already, Fox? Give a music competition show fan a rest, jeez.

Oh, and hire Cheryl Cole for American Idol. That, I think, would be the true booster shot everyone's been looking for.