[Ned Martel is filling in for Lisa de Moraes, who will be back blogging next week]

The X-Factor cacophony resumed Wednesday in this croaky, bloaty forum for talent and delusion. “Idol” exiles Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul held court, with L.A. Reid, the pop impresario, and Nicole Scherzinger, the ex-Pussycat Doll and “Dancing With the Stars” winner, adding their two cents toward the $5 million prize. (Oh, and “back” for the auditions in Chicago, here’s Cheryl Cole, but we know she has already been “disappeared.”)

Here are the categories the judges are looking to populate: Boys (male contestants under 30), Girls (female contestants under 30), Over 30s and Groups. The show is thus open for business for a Susan Boyle-like blowout star but still geared up as a bubblegum factory.

Case in point, a young blonde couple with obvious genetic and harmonic compatibility showed up in the Chicago regional elimination round. They came all the way from Springfield, Mo., but it could have been any of The Simpsons’ hometown, given their almost comical Anywhere USA qualities. An aw-shucks 18-year-old, Brock was milk-fed and long-legged but weak in the knees when looking at his singing partner. At 22, McKenna was a few Reese Witherspoon-fuls of blond Southern cuteness but not quite the recommended dosage.

They were prompted to make a just-friends declaration to an arena packed with 21st century bobbysocksers, who directed awkward! mouth gapes at the public display of unrequited affection. When the duo’s song got sung—“Colder Weather” by the Zac Brown Band—Brock seemed the stronger talent, and yet the judge panel praise landed on McKenna, oddly. Anyway, they earned four “yeses,” as befits an opening segment in a series that is itself struggling to get some requited affection.

Then a break for Simon’s Verizon commercial. (Greedy, much?) Then a parade of the feckless, including a 45-year-old encased in black lace over a bright red bra. A male model mangled Seal. A zaftig woman did Katy Perry wrong. A shuttle-bus driver auditioned to be a judge. Her case was dismissed.

Next came a fusion candidate, a Mississippi African American teenager singing country. At 16, Skyelor Anderson showed the wherewithal to stay on track when the music track didn’t. His CD cut off but his voice kept twanging without much hesitation. Huzzahs from all, and he marched his camouflage-capped self off to the next round.

Then to remind the world of the still-supreme “American Idol” empire, an ad featured that franchise’s judge Jennifer Lopez hawking Kohl’s clothing. OK, so it wasn’t Louis Vuitton, but Jenny noted that her block got bigger.

And when the show returned, a pang of injustice could be felt for writers’ rooms at the production offices of actual scripted fare. TV joke-slingers have to cram louche repartee into 22-minute scripts, and yet inordinate prime-time minutes were granted to a philosophy grad student explaining his gooberish algorithm for success. His handle was J. Mark, and he predicted that in 10 years’ time, he’d be “pretty much at the helms of a Renaissance.” He sang Radiohead’s “Creep” and Paula, the object of his unwanted romantic predictions, retorted: “Fitting.” He was like Farmer Ted in “16 Candles” plus William Hung plus an air guitar aficionado. Even though the Radiohead coda had him singing “I don’t belong here,” the judges gave him another chance. L.A. Reid: “It sounded so bad but felt so good.”

More circus freaks, like a goth girl, a black Boy George-like art rocker, and other oddities. Simon surveyed these outliers and told Paula they’re evidence of “the effect you are having on the world.” Cut to her shimmying in the hallway in an outfit that was floral print on top and leopard print on the bottom.

The judges granted four yeses but short shrift to a guy named Arin Ray, and then devoted major minutes to Josh Krajcik, a 30-year-old burrito-joint worker from Columbus. Much was made of his jean-jacketed Mom’s I-drove-him exuberance, and one could feel the ultimate rhyme potential of his name: Rhymes with Tragic. He was about to sing “At Last” by Etta James. “Really?” Simon said snidely. And then the reveal: A little Smoky Robinson, a little Joe Cocker. Stupendous. Josh was big and slovenly and hairy and is obviously bound for a sartorial and tonsorial rethink in Emerald City. L.A. Reid said he is onto him: “This is your before. You’re not fooling me.”

In Seattle, a mother-daughter pair called themselves The Good Girls, presumably because no one else ever would. They were neither Good nor Girls. The mom was 70, and her daughter, 31, was named Darwin. They were selected against. Moaning through Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?”, the duo no more stayed within the lines of its sheet music than did their lipstick confine itself to the lip.

After each dip in talent, a spike was in store. Next came Drew Ryniewicz, a 14-year-old total Belieber from Chino Valley, Arizona. She was a Justin acolyte all the way, but really more a testament to being, as Lady Gaga sings, “Born This Way.” Little Drew torch-sung her way through Bieber’s repetitive “Baby” lyrics and made them into a heart-hurt. Nicole and Simon said she improved on the original. Simon added, “Easiest yes so far today.” Holding up her sundress as she got off the stage, Drew tumbled into hugs, and then her carpenter dad dropped to his knees and her showboating Mohawked kid brother seemed happy to be secondary. It was loving and lovely all at once.

Alas more oddity in store, in the form of peppy Peet Montzingo, who sang a version of “Billionaire” by Bruno Mars. The 21-year-old Seattle kid is the fully-heighted son and sibling of dwarves and no reality show in the history of the Fox network has avoided the exploitation of such a phenomenon. Thus, no surprise that his family’s otherness was the only interesting thing about the kid’s performance.

4Shore, four guys from Virginia Beach, issued another challenge to L.A. Reid, attempting not only a song Reid produced (as Drew did with Bieber’s “Baby”) but a song Reid himself wrote. The harmony showcase was “The End of the Road” and Reid bestowed a standing ovation and said the quartet did him and Babyface and Boyz II Men very proud.

Elaine Gibbs, a 53-year-old grandmother and wedding singer, apparently sang “You’ve Got a Friend” pretty well, but you would never know from the quick cuts of her high notes and high marks. More of her later, apparently. Same for supercute Francesca Duncan, a teensy teeny-bopper with Alicia Keys beauty and an ability to belt out “Hero.” Tiger Budbill was presented as some wedding DJ who barely got past the panel and then came Phillip Lomax, a 21-year-old who works in a Seattle restaurant—for now anyway. He got the votes he seemed to know were due to him, even before he issued one crooning note of “Fly Me to the Moon.” He was all big teeth and big confidence, and Paula began her love-bombing of cute male contestants. “That smile is money in your pocket,” she swooned, though she noted, as did the others, that even effortlessness takes practice. Having flown himself to the moon, Lomax bolted blithely off stage with his permission to go another round. “Hasn’t listened to a single word we said,” Simon harrumphed.

The show ended with Tia Tolliver, a similarly unprepared deli clerk. She was only 19 and also had a huge smile and huge bankability, according to the men on the panel. “This girl potentially is great,” Simon said, amping the crowd and begging Nicole and Paula to relent. The women agreed to give another listen, and Tia’s a capella notes were again all over the place. But her pluck plucked her from oblivion, and she’ll return when they gather again.


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