The Problem with ‘X Factor’ So Far

Watching the first three episodes of Simon Cowell’s new American venture has been more of a chore than it should be.

Didn’t we once look forward to watching “American Idol”?

“The X Factor” by contrast is much less of pleasure, and not just because its sheer volume. In three episodes, it’s already expended six hours, as long as the latest Ken Burns epic; it’ll be eight hours before the end of today in its two weeks of four episodes.

That time hasn’t been spent in makeshift second-call audition rooms, they are in arenas, which are so similar and interchangeable, it’s claustrophobic. They’re lit for consistency probably, but come off as being so similar in their darkness, with the audience bathed in blue and stage lit in red, it looks like they’re all happening in the same facility. The idea of going out into different parts of the country should be reflected in different settings everywhere. That doesn’t happen here.

“The X Factor” keeps up the myth that the thousands who crowd in to audition go directly up to the stage – of course there are several rounds of auditions before they are presented before the high-profile judges. And who do producers pick for them? The obvious winners and the obvious losers.

Once, Cowell and Paula Abdul could quibble on whether someone who is somewhere in between should move ahead in the competition. Now, there is scarcely any grey area. It’s almost always 4-0 one way or another, though there were some indications that the Abdul-Nicole Scherzinger bloc of knowing-nothing and no ability to express it were especially tough (or threatened) by female singers.

There was something loose and charming about the “Idol” auditions, with an anything-can-happen feeling. If the judges felt like bursting out laughing, they’d have to hide it because they were practically the only other ones in the room.

Now, in an arena that kind of one-on-one intensity is dissipated into the audience. As an auditioner sings, directors just as often cut to the audience as they do the judges for reaction (and it’s usually the same group of sorority girls bused in; there may be boys in the seats at these arenas, but you’ll have to look hard to find them in the close-ups).

Having the audience as a reactor adds to the impression that the results are unanimous and obvious to everyone. Judges so far are not booed; what they say reflects how the audience had reacted. And it raises questions whether ultimately, judges are really needed at all.

It’s tough to condense whole audition runs into an accurate reflection of what went down, but I got the feeling the old “Idol” used to do that pretty well. Here, we’re either spending 12 minutes on a single audition, or speeding through a dozen of them in a minute. (But considering the time restraints, why the weird split second pause between the time judges tell the singer to start and the time the music begins?).

Edited into a narrative, with bland British host Steve Jones doing the voice over, the show obviously lying about even the littlest things: “The first one arriving to audition is …” Jones says, when it’s obvious that the hopeful is only the first chosen to be featured for the episode.

There’s much more post-production gloss and manipulation than even “Idol” had; we’re left with the feeling that these are long shows about the auditions rather than the auditions themselves.

In this, “The X Factor” is much more akin to Simon Cowell’s other show, “America’s Got Talent,” than it is to “Idol.” As in that almost unwatchable summer show, there’s no emotion left for a viewer to find for himself; everything is tweaked to squeeze every last tear from an emotional audition or a strong one. It’s a show where the song of the contestant is supposed to speak for itself; instead every audition has to be accompanied by a pulsing pop soundtrack to let the audience know exactly how it is supposed to feel: Let’s celebrate! Let’s commiserate!  It’s as unnecessary as a laugh track in a sitcom.

It’s absolutely at its worst as the show begins, hoping to feign excitement with one-second cuts, those clichéd sped-up and slowed down camera turns through the crowd (more a reflection of what an editor sees all day than what an audience wants to see) and to back up the upcoming scenes of the agony and ecstasy in auditions, the same old operatic theme: the concluding “O Fortuna” segment of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” the most overused apocalyptic music in pop culture.

All of this may change once the next level of “X Factor” begins, when they divide the solo acts by age and gender and considering the groups on their own. And eventually, the judges will pick their own team to mentor and coach, in the way “The Sing Off” already stole from them.

That’s why I’m glad the audition sequence, as unfulfilling as it has been, winds up tonight.

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