Friday, September 23, 2011

Honking Box Review: X Factor USA

Regular readers will know that we’ve had a thing or two to say about The X Factor in the past – rants, round-ups, liveblogs, and posts so venomous and/or libellous we’ve deleted them in fear of Syco’s legal muscle kicking the front door in.

So we couldn’t let the big-money launch of the American version go without a dose of scrutiny, now could we? Admittedly, it didn’t come easy to do so – watching The X Factor recently has felt like such an effort, and that hasn’t provided a huge dose of enthusiasm as the long-touted Fox revision finally hit screens this week.

And while the new British judging line-up has given the show a kick up the arse, the transparency of show has become laughable. The clumsiest re-edits to steer the narrative how the producers want, the rejigging of acts and categories for no apparent reason, and the visible despair of Dermot O’Leary as he longs for the days of waxing indie with Bobby Gillespie on Re:Covered.

So it’s with some surprise that the American version doesn’t fall prey to the same tired standards – or if it does, it at least covers them up a whole lot better than the UK version. Furthermore, it was a relief to see the audition trail handled city by city, in comparison to the “We’re in BIRMINGHAM! No, LONDON! Hang on, LIVERPOOL! No, it was BIRMINGHAM all along!” that saturates each British episode.

One highlight – in terms of talent at least – came in the form of Chris, a former drug addict whose audition was genuinely impressive. But, rather disgustingly, Simon Cowell offered Chris a place at Boot Camp on the promise that he agrees to stay clean. Never mind that he’s already been to rehab, is doing exceptionally well and has a family to think about – he’ll lay off the crack because he wants to be turned into a watered-down Bruno Mars and sent home by Week 2.

The focus as far as ITV2 viewers were concerned was mainly on Cheryl Cole, and her unceremonious axing from the show. Surprisingly, she came across incredibly well – she may not be missed on the UK version, but perhaps the time out of the spotlight (in relative terms, at least) has been of benefit. She was warm, funny, friendly, understandable and confident – not the timid lamb Cowell told us she had become – and evoked the likeable, excited Cheryl of Series 5 rather than the jaded, entitled brat of Series 7.

Her ruthless, opportunistic successor Nicole Scherzinger, apart from being the devil’s own concubine, was actually pretty good value deputising for Cheryl and Dannii on the UK version last year. However, she’s not shown a whole lot in the way of promise Stateside – bland, flat and every inch the dead-eyed slutbag we got to know as Führer of the Alleycat Trolls.

Elsewhere, LA Reid and Paula Abdul were adequate in their roles, the former yet to reveal his in-show quirk, while the latter has evidently had hers placated by prescription medicine. And the auditionees ticked all the necessary boxes – cutesy kiddies, delusional bellowing, it’s-my-last-chance 40-something belters, sassy divas, over-rehearsed boybands, and of course, mentally unstable pensioners pushed onto the stage with the sole purpose of ridicule.

It was all passable stuff, generally entertaining and with a decent display of talent, certainly far greater than the train wreck we’ve seen over here these past few weeks. The problem seems to be an arrogant assumption that America will take to the whole X Factor machine the way the UK did. What Simon Cowell seems to have mysteriously forgotten is that The X Factor had fairly humble beginnings on these shores – discreet audition rooms instead of packed arenas; industry-based judges as opposed to shiny celebrities; comparatively modest viewing figures; little in the way of press coverage; relatively low-key live shows, with a sensibly-sized stage and a mere 9 finalists; Kate Thornton. Kate. Thornton.

It’s taken several years for the show to morph into the towering entertainment behemoth we know it as today. But the US version is starting right at the top, foolishly thinking that American viewers will be as susceptible to the media-wide propaganda that fills the tabloids here in Blighty. And while E! or the National Enquirer or The Ricki Lake Show would suggest otherwise, the Yanks don’t buy into that mindset quite as easily. If The X Factor wants to succeed, it’s going to have to absolutely nail every second of its content, because it cannot rely on the hype. And if that doesn’t work, particularly after the gargantuan publicity it’s created for itself, then it’s got a very, very long way to fall, very, very publicly.

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