Idol Killer?

Why I Love ‘The X Factor’

Simon Cowell’s ‘American Idol’ offshoot debuted Wednesday night. ‘Idol’ expert Richard Rushfield calls it fun and contemporary, and pronounces Cowell energized and cocky.

09.21.11 11:15 PM ET

For The X Factor, tonight’s U.S. debut on Fox comes at the end of the longest, rockiest development road perhaps ever faced by a television show. It has been eight years since Simon Cowell, then a judge on the fledging American Idol, dreamed it up as the next iteration of the singing-contest format. He wanted a show with no age limits—young or old—for the contestants, where not only individual singers but groups would be allowed to perform, and where the judges don’t just preside from Mount Olympus but get down into the weeds, actually managing the contestants and battling against each other.

In enacting this vision, Cowell set himself in direct conflict with the show his electrifying presence had helped turn into a colossus. Two lawsuits, a prolonged negotiated peace, and a painful breakup with Idol later, The X Factor finally arrived on American airwaves Wednesday.

The talent-contest marketplace has gotten a lot more crowded, however. Once, Idol stood alone on American networks as the show that had managed to achieve major success. In the interim, the TV schedule has been flooded with musical competitions, from the dance genre—led by Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance—to shows like Cowell’s own America’s Got Talent. Now the launch of X Factor comes not only three months after the mega-finale of Idol’s 10th season, but also after the conclusion of the first singing contest to give Idol a run for its money, Mark Burnett’s The Voice, which attracted very respectable numbers in its debut season on NBC.

So the question is: does America need one more singing contest? And after an absence of a year and a half, is Simon Cowell, arguably the past decade’s biggest primetime star, still relevant? Is there still an appetite for his patented brand of caustic truthtelling?

The proof will lie in the ratings. But after viewing the first two episodes, the signs are extremely positive for the former Mr. Nasty. Crowded though the genre may be, fans are likely to feel that in this new show, Cowell has taken them someplace different and more contemporary than any before it. And seeing him once more, Cowell instantly reminds one why over the past decade an entire species of television stars has been created in his image.

It is not that X Factor does anything revolutionary in these first two episodes, which feature regional auditions. Formally, this phase is of a piece with the first round of Idol auditions, featuring the aspiring contestants' first appearances before the judges, replete with moments of unexpected brilliance, tragically misguided confidence, heartbreaking backstories, and comical pratfalls.

But in television, what’s on paper often tells you as much about what the show will be like as reading a restaurant menu gives you a taste of the actual food. It is in the editing, the production, and the chemistry that a show either comes alive or doesn’t. And in this first glimpse of The X Factor, Cowell and company reveal a show that feels zippier and more relevant than any of its rivals, while retaining the epic sense of spectacle that makes these programs at their strongest rise above the level of a mere game show.

We have seen lots of these shows. But The X Factor reminds us that a well-produced singing contest with a few twists thrown in can simply be really, really fun. X Factor looks to remind us that for fans of the genre, competitive singing is our NFL: a relentlessly emotional, exciting sport in which deeper meanings take a far back seat to the spectacle of seeing someone complete an impossible pass in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, or, in the singing equivalent, hit that ridiculous high note that leads Simon Cowell to declare a singer an instant legend.

In contrast to the seriousness and heavy-handedness of late-era Idol, X Factor feels positively effervescent. These heavily edited, pretaped episodes fairly race along. In recent years, getting through Idol’s audition weeks has become for many fans—this one included—a major slog, bearing up for hour after hour of emotional highs and lows, every note pounded out with a sledgehammer. The X Factor's debut touches on the established situations—the “freak” contestants, the surprise diamonds in the rough—but rather than rubbing the audience’s face in each moment, the show is almost gentle. The deluded are mocked without having every shred of their dignity ripped apart. The sob stories are told without a full-blown, Titanic “My Heart Will Go On” crescendo.

As for the centerpiece element, the return of Simon Cowell: quite simply, nobody does it better. From his very first moments on American television, way back in 2002, the intensity of his conviction about every opinion has been so electrifying that after a thousand imitators, none even comes close. Cowell’s sense of timing and his ability to radiate pure sureness remain a once-in-a-lifetime find.

Last season, after his departure, American Idol conducted a much-discussed experiment in transitioning away from the harsh judgments into a paradigm of nurturing support. Built around the gushy emotings of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, the revamped show endeared itself to viewers, amazingly gaining in ratings after Cowell’s departure. But it was undeniable that something was lacking in drama. That moment when Judge Cowell delivered his verdict had for so long been the hinge to the entire episode: would Simon like a performance or rip it to shreds? Nothing could fill that gap, and without it the episodes felt shapeless and meandering.

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And it has been a long time since we’ve seen Simon Cowell at his best. By his own admission, he spent the last few years of his Idol stint bored and longing for freedom. From the first glimpses of him we see in The X Factor, it is the energized, forceful, cocky, and electrifying Simon Cowell of yore. The proposition remains to be tested, however, whether audiences, having embraced the J. Lo model of judging, have moved on from Cowell’s hard line, or whether they were just biding time until his return.

As for the rest of the panel, it is too early to say much, but the glimpses are encouraging. Music executive L.A. Reid brings a serious wealth of knowledge and experience. The first episode attempts to paint him as Cowell’s sparring partner in the making, a role he seems very capable of filling (which would be a first for Cowell on these shores). Cowell’s reunion with Paula Abdul brings together again one of the great buddy acts in TV history. Only ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, introduced after the axing of Cheryl Cole, seems a potentially weak link—she seems like she is trying too hard.

The X Factor is edgier than its fairly stodgy forerunner, which raises the question of whether that will be to X Factor’s benefit, ratings-wise. As the last remaining bastion of broad family viewing, the loyalty that Idol inspires is very much because of its outdatedness, not despite it. It is not a coincidence that the biggest show in broadcasting regularly picks safe, sweet boys like this year’s winner, 16-year-old country crooner Scotty McCreery, as its champions, passing over more alternatively oriented talents like Adam Lambert. With its embrace of current music genres (The X Factor’s U.K. version regularly featured hip-hop numbers, mashups, and selections from the charts of the minute) and its slicker, less self-serious production, X Factor seems certain to win a sizable and devoted following. Whether that following will run as vast and broad as American Idol's will shortly be seen.