Imagine “American Idol” produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and you have Fox’s new singing competition series, “X Factor” -- a giant, teetering, button- pushing contraption.
The premiere episode opens with the toff who serves as the Ryan Seacrest of this show, Steve Jones, in the passenger seat of one of three “X Factor” big rigs, heading to the show’s first audition, in Los Angeles.
Simon Cowell, the show’s “creator” and exec producer, prefers to travel in one of those incredibly expensive black sports cars with which rich men in Los Angeles overcompensate for various shortcomings. His is a million-dollar Bugatti Veyron with a license plate that reads “X Factor.”
Simon, of course, bailed on “American Idol” in order to launch “X Factor” in the United States. He did it first in the U.K., where the “Idol” franchise got its start, and there’s no love lost between the two singing competitions. The creators of “Idol” have claimed “X Factor” is a knockoff of their show.
“X Factor” judge L.A. Reid prefers to travel in a helicopter. Reid has that P Puff Diddy Daddy air of stiffness that apparently connotes executive success in the music industry. Reid, we’re told, produced Mariah, Pink, Rihanna, Usher and Justin Bieber.
Paula Abdul – the Dale Evans to Simon’s Roy Rogers -- trumps them both, getting out of a private jet. Paula, we’re told, is a very successful performer and choreographer, who may or may not have had a previous TV singing-competition judging career – they’re not saying.
And finally, Brit pop singer Cheryl Cole has to travel in a Chevy Tahoe. Cole is a member of the pop group Girls Aloud and sold more than 10 million records in her career. But we all know what happened to Cheryl after the Los Angeles auditions. She got the hook. We’re still wondering why. Some theories had her “confused,” others had her Newcastle-Upon-Tyne accent deemed too tough for Americans to understand. Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, who was originally signed to co-host with Steve, replaced Cheryl as the fourth judge and all trace of Nicole as co-host was wiped from the Los Angeles auditions.
Eventually, the judges and Steve all wind up at USC’s Galen Center. Steve reminds us of this show’s $5 million recording contract, which will from here on out be spoken of as a $5 million cash prize. Top that, “American Idol!”
“Auditions begin in the city where all over the world people come to make their dreams come true – “Los Angeleeze” says Steve, who is Welsh and cannot pronounce Los Angeles.
Steve explains that, on this show, anyone over the age of 12 can compete. Plus, it has a $5 million prize, he notes.
Steve also insists Simon is responsible for $300 million in record sales. And he assures us Simon is the “most successful talent scout on the planet.”
Simon reminds us he walked away from “the No. 1 show in America” – “Idol” is never mentioned by name -- to launch a “brand new show.”
Time for the Reading of the Rules:
The contestants will be divided into four categories: Boys, Girls, Groups, and something called “Over 30.”
Each judge will mentor one of the categories. Then they choose which of the contestants from that category will move on to the live competition, where viewer voting kicks in.
First auditioner is little 13-year-old Rachel Crow. Because the $5 million prize has not been mentioned in at least six minutes, Simon asks her what she’d do with the $5 million prize.
Rachel explains she lives in a two-bedroom house and has a family of six, adding, “I need my own bathroom.”
Unlike “Idol,” in which auditions are conducted in crummy rooms in hotels at various cities and the hopefuls have to sing a cappella while standing spitting distance from the judges, everything in this show is arena rock. One thing’s for sure – no talented but quirky, jazz-y, folk-y, performers are going to make it through this audition process. No Siobhan Magnus, no Crystal Bowersox. “Idol” winner Lee DeWyze would have died of fright right there on the stage. Little Rachel is about a quarter of a mile from the judges; she belts out “Mercy” while waggling her hips.
The large crowd in the hall is just flat-out cheering wildly by the time Rachel gets to the end of the first bar.
How did they recruit these people to madly start cheering when performers they’ve never seen before have barely got a few notes out? Did they tell them if they yell loud enough, Justin Bieber would come out? Did they really keep it up through all the auditions or, as audience members succumbed to laryngitis, were they pulled out and fresh ones brought in?
“You delivered the goods on every level,” Paula gushes.
“You had me before you sang,” Cheryl gushes.
Reid says Rachel has “everything that every artist I ever signed has.”
“Rachel, we spent a long time deliberating how low to take the ages on this competition and you are the reason why we were right taking this age down…I think we’re going to be hearing a lot about you….Rachel, get ready for a new bathroom – it’s four yeses.”
After the first ad break, Steve reminds us they’re still in Los Angeleeze.
A slew of good singers is trotted out. 36-year-old Terrell Carter; 12-year-old Ellona Santiago, 14-year-old John Landhal.
“So it’s been a great start to the Los Angeleeze auditions,” Steve says.
Next up is a person who’s convinced he’ll be keeping the run of success very much alive.”
That’s 30-year old Siameze Floyd, who says he’s on his way to becoming a “mega-star.”
“Let me explain to you: I have the look. I have The Attitude. I have The Talent. Girls are way easy to get when you’ve been on stage,” says Siameze, who says he is a “hotel performer.”
His performance is very Early Prince meets James Brown.
Cheryl can’t decide if she loves it and it’s genius or “do I think it’s weird?”
Simon calls it very “Prince copycat” but acknowledges, “there is something kind of fascinating about you.”
Paula says he’s not original enough. All this negativity gives Reid the courage to give Siameze the thumbs down. Imagine his surprise when Cheryl, Paula, and Simon give Siameze the green light, though Simon does mention he thinks Siameze is “deluded.”
Day 2 in Los Angeleeze. But first, out in Pahrump, Nevada, 70-year-old Dan and his 83-year-old wife Venita are preparing to head to Los Angeleeze to audition. Dan looks like Fred Williard and Venita looks like Cher of the Future.
When they get to the auditions, Simon wonders what they’ll do with the $5 million prize.
“We will be in our travel home and play all over the places that have the most beautiful senior centers,” Venita says. Dan begins to sing “Unchained Melody” while Venita, who is dressed in a black sequined dress, black pants, high heels, a cowboy hat, and a red flower tucked over one ear, does a hula dance and periodically touches Dan’s hand, when the tune gets to the “I hunger for your touch” bit.
The judges are extremely kind to the couple but tell them their journey ends here.
Backstage, Dan and Venita appear to have died and gone to heaven. “We didn’t make it,” Dan says, and then they kiss each other in The Heaven Room -- a place of pure bright white light where all “X Factor” rejects go – perhaps for eternity.
A duo called You Only Live Once is comprised of two teenaged girls – one with green hair, one with purple hair. While one of them sings the other acts as though she swallowed poison, Simon observes accurately.
Then 61-year-old Linda Ostrofsky, a retired court clerk, sings that “when I think about you I touch myself.” To The Heaven Room, Linda!
There, she’ll meet up with Miranda Singleton, a tone-deaf stay-at-home mom. “It was like you and I had a falling out and you were screaming at me,” Simon says of her performance.
Not only will the winner get $5 million, they’ll also get to star in their very own Pepsi commercial, which will air next year on the Super Bowl. Every artist’s dream is to have an ad in the Super Bowl, Paula explains.
Some chick in tight red shorts is described by Simon as a cross between a cheerleader, a hipster and a drag queen – and yet, she’s on to the next round of competition.
And 40-something single mother/abusive relationship survivor Stacy Francis gets a standing O from the four judges – Simon calls hers “one of the best auditions I’ve ever heard in my life.”
It wasn’t that good.
Then, faster than you can say “Cheryl Cole is out,” they’ve moved on to Seattle which, not being a Spanish name, Steve can pronounce.
Steve introduces the judges all over again, so that he can explain Cheryl is no longer with them, without explaining why, and Nicole is now the fourth judge.
“I’m excited to see the talent America has. Whassup Seattle!” Nicole says.
“Let’s hope I don’t mess this up,” she whispers before sitting down at the judges’ table.
First to audition: middle-aged Geo Godley, wearing a silver leisure suit. He’s singing a tune he composed himself, called “I’m a Stud.” He drops his pants; the producers cover his genitals with a large red X. He turns and moons the arena; his heinie covered with a large red X. Paula and Nicole turn away in horror. Paula gets up and goes to her dressing room and gets sick. Lucky she didn’t attend the taping of the “Two and a Half Men” season debut, isn’t it?
“What the bloody hell was that?” Simon says. “I came here and I put $5 million on the line and THAT appeared! I don’t know what you’re thinking,” Simon snaps.
“That was offensive, disgusting, distasteful,” Reid chimes in. “Get him out of the building, please.”
“Yeah, Geo, I’m a little traumatized – I’m going to have to say ‘no’,” Nicole says.
Pro that Paula is, she returns to the judges table -- the show must go on. Wild applause from the crowd for her pluck.
Marcus Canty’s mom has given Marcus, 20, two years to find a singing career or get a job. His two years are nearly over. He sings a Stevie Wonder tune; he’t not bad and very charismatic.
Reid begins to blather about how he’s been looking for the next Bobby Brown ever since finding the last Bobby Brown.
“You’re what we’ve been waiting for,” Nicole adds. How does she know? She just got there.
Paula, on the other hand, pronounces him “relevant” and “adorable” and room illuminating.
Simon notes the Wonder tune Marcus sang is one of those songs he usually warns people not to attempt -- without mentioning $5 million once. “But I really, really like you … you remind [me] more of Usher.”
Cue the triumphal music – Marcus is in.
“American Idol” judge JLo shows up in a Fiat ad – traitor!
Day 2 of “X Factor” without Cheryl opens with the audience being told to sing “Happy Birthday” to Nicole and Simon presenting her with a cake that has his photo on it.
The Anser is the name of a boy band cliché. One guy is wearing a red wool knitted cap. A second sports a fedora. The third is wearing cartoon-red glasses. They sing “Rolling in the Deep.”
Reid admires their swagger. Nicole says they are three words:
“You get this $5 million prize,” adds Paula.
Nici Collins, 23 is tone deaf. She says the microphone isn’t working. “I feel like you did this on a dare,” Paula says.
“You have a horrible voice,” Simon says, cutting to the chase. It’s off to The Heaven Room for Nici, where she continues to express her shock and outrage.
“It can’t get any worse,” Simon says to the other judges after Nici leaves. Which naturally means the next audition will be much worse: a mother and daughter singing team known as “T for Two.” They not only have no talent, they’re unattractive and overweight; Simon speculates that they live in a field.
A couple of non starters later, out comes 20-year-old Chris Rene, a trash hauler and a recovering addict with a 2-year-old son.
“I want to be onstage, singing for people, making money,” he explains. He’s been clean just 70 days. He’s asked what he’d do with the $5 million.
The judges keep mentioning the $5 million like they’re venture capitalists interviewing kids who run Internet startups. Asking people whose family of six lives in a two-bedroom house, or who haul trash for a living and are trying to kick a drug habit, what they would do with $5 million – what would the right answer be? And what happened to treating performers like artists? This panel of judges makes the “Idol” panel look like high school music teachers.
“Honey, I’m tripping on you,” Nicole says after his sweet performance of “Young Homie,” a self-written song about being in recovery. Maybe not the best choice of compliments, Nicole!
Paula goes with the safer “you are a bright light.” Reid wants us to know he’s worked with some great hip-hop artists and this guy is “The Truth.”
“The fact it, maybe you need the show and maybe we need you,” concludes Simon.
Reid insists that if he ever telephones Chris, he should not have his sister take the call because he needs to hear Chris’s voice and know he’s still straight.
“If we put you through, you stay on the right track. That’s the deal we make – no breaking that,” adds Simon.
“Congratulations,” says Nicole, as she and Paula also give him the go ahead. “God is good.”