The first time I filled in for Emily in this space, I felt a little sheepish and uncertain of my opinions about the show, being an X Factor virgin and all. But tonight, filling in for Emily for the second and final time, I felt assured and certain, as if I'd watched The X Factor a thousand times. Maybe this is a tribute to the quickly the show makes you feel at home with its TV family of zany characters and its Bizarro World values. Maybe it has a lot to do with the swell job being done by the voice-over narrator, who's forever briefing you on who's who and what's already happened and what's going to happen and what's happening right before your eyes. Tonight, it almost certainly had something to do with the number of exceptionally terrible, self-parodying performances, none of which were likely to make anyone think, "Maybe it's just me." After a while, I had to go back to look at the opening credits to make sure that Christopher Guest wasn't the special guest director.
In the booby prize category, there were some real awe-inspiring achievements, the kind of performances that can help you better understand how, after being bombarded with hours of this crap, a Pepsi-addled mind could form the thought, "You know, this Nick Voss fellow has a real feeling for the music." Considering how bad the groups are as, well, a group, the trio Illusion Confusion earned themselves a special round of blank stares. They went in with the handicap of being the only group whose name didn't look like an online password, but they made up for it with the scale of their dreams: "We want to do Super Bowl halftime performances, number one albums, number one singles!" Their rap-heavy, alarmingly smiley-faced rendition of "Let's Dance" started out terrible and presumably got worse, though it's hard to know just how much worse, because somebody decided to keep cutting away from the performance itself to show more of their interview. From what we saw of it, it seemed unlikely that this was based on the decision that the interview itself made for such great TV that it would betray the viewers' trust not to include as much of it as possible. When the three Junior Woodchucks finally settled down and bounced offscreen, presumably in the hopes of doing another interview, Pharrell, ever the diplomat, offered the tentative verdict that what was most impressive about them was their "drive." Ever the pilgrim in search of greater clarity and wisdom, Paula Abdul asked him if he thought that "their ambitions surpass their abilities?" "Yeah!" replied Pharrell, in an undiplomatically unambiguous tone of "Duh!!" Now, that was great TV.
Other contestants featured tonight might have been sent over from Central Casting to plug various holes that would automatically need filling if this were a Saturday Night Live sketch on the general theme of "people who've been told they sound great in the shower trying to launch their singing careers via a televised talent search." Brennin Hunt, boldly stepping forward to prove that you don't have to be in a group to spell your own name wrong, filled the niche labeled, "Narcissistic Alpha Doofus with More Styling Expertise Than Talent." (On first sight of him, the voice coming from the other end of the couch chimed in, "His hair is like a separate appendage.") In terms of worldly ambition, he made Illusion Confusion look like Snuffy Smith; all he wanted to get out of this, he told the camera, was to ensure that future generations would "remember my name and remember my songs and my legacy on the Earth." One hour later and I don't even remember what he sang, though I do remember Rihanna summing up his accomplishment: "He's beautiful, and his tone is correct at times."
Good ol' boy Tim Cifers made his mark on TV history and committed his legacy on the Earth by inventing the term "countryism" to describe what he and his twangy-ass songs are meant to embody. Like Brennin Hunt and just about everyone else, Cifers seemed to have a weird, not altogether healthy, yet intensely held attitude toward just what continuing participation on a talent show can do for your life, though where Hunt and others think that winning will guarantee them untold riches and immortality, Cifers might actually want to expand his dreams a bit. To make sure his kids grow up countryistical, he would like to teach them to hunt and fish, and he seemed to suggest that without Simon Cowell's blessing, he could never hope to obtain a rod and reel and gain access to a body of water. Christa Collins, the lapsed child star who accessorizes at Toys R Us, kept talking about how this show was her big "second chance" at stardom. It's strange listening to a 32-year-old woman who was released from a contract with Disney Records when she was 12 talking about a comeback and sounding like Norma Desmond.
Watching the contestants on a show like this, sharing their tales of woe and talking about how having a chance to win will solve all their problems and being sent home early will ruin what's left of their lives, it may be too easy to come to the conclusion that something terrible is being revealed about the state of the American dream, in a diminished land where nobody seems to be getting enough calcium. If you watch enough reality-competition shows, you know that there's nothing the judges uniformly hate more than someone who doesn't seem to "want it" enough. On show after show, people who betray hints of not being ready to run over their grandmothers to stick around another week get voted off quicker than others who may have less talent and fewer interesting ideas about what to do with it but who plainly have the fire in their belly. I guess that if you're a semi-somebody making time in your schedule to judge a bunch of nobodies, a contestant who seems on the verge of yawning when they should be hanging desperately on your every word can make you feel silly for being there at all, besides which, they don't make for great TV.
This may help to account for the single strangest development on tonight's show, when Simon welcomed Melanie Amaro, for whom he clearly had great hopes. He listened to her sing, and then, after she'd walked off (to tell the interviewer that she'd done her best and was "very happy" about it), he entertained the crew by lying back and tearing up his note cards, muttering something to the effect that she was toast. I was surprised: I thought she'd sounded pretty good, and so did some of the members of Simon's pit crew who'd rushed over to confer with him. But it seemed that Simon thought that she'd given him "a look as if to say, 'You're writing me off.'" The camera didn't catch the look to which he was referring, so it was hard to know what he was talking about, but he seemed very sure: "I know that look. I've gotten it before." Simon also said some sensible-sounding things about how, sure, she may have sounded good, but she was also squarely in her comfort zone, and the test she needs to pass now is to move out of it. (To know if these things were not just sensible-sounding but sensible, I'd need for this not to have been my first experience hearing her sing.) And this exchange came at the very end of the show, which might be reason enough to wonder if it hadn't been ginned up just to provide the episode with a cliffhanger. But for now, it left you with the feeling that an awful lot of how this contest goes might come down to the stars' own weird issues.
There were some other likable performances. Twelve-year-old Rachel Crow acquitted herself very nicely, even though the performance she was required to deliver, singing "I Want It That Way" as a dirge, was conceptually very Guestian. When she wasn't singing, she provided the added attraction of giving you the chance to watch someone who seemed mature and grown-up, while other contestants twice her age were melting down into tearful, anxious puddles. Sixty-year-old Leroy Bell demonstrated enough shy charm to suggest what Marvin Gaye might be like today, if he were still alive and had taken way good care of himself. The voice from the other end of the couch approved strongly of hirsute over-30 Josh Krajcik and his heartfelt assault on "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and I warmed up to him myself after it dawned on me that he was actually Chris Pratt of Parks & Recreation doing a bit. But the one thing that the best acts and the near-worst had in common was that, whether you warmed to them or not, they didn't generate a lot of excitement. Maybe that will come after the numbers have been crunched and the live performances begin. Maybe it's the luck of the draw. Or maybe, just maybe, the starving performers who have it in them to be really exciting aren't looking to a TV talent show as their one, their one and only, I'm sorry, excuse me… [breaks down weeping, then recovers] the only chance they're ever going to have to make it in this crazy business!
- Most spectacular failure to make it their own: 2Squar'd, the girl group who, at Paula Abdul's whim, were obliged to perform "Bohemian Rhapsody." Every inflection and piece of phrasing sounded just like the original.
- The Get Off My Lawn Prize goes to InTENsity, the group of, yes, 10 youngsters who were welded together into one hyperactive unit at boot camp. The cameraman must have really had it in for these kids; he had a peerless knack for framing them in close-ups that will haunt their dating histories for many years to come.
- The lovable chatterboxes award goes to the Stereo Hogzz, who capered about Paula Abdul's lawn, talking about how nice it was to have real grass to play on in a way that suggested the Monkees as played by the Coasters. When it came time for their number, the lead singer belted out "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," his partners ran interference all around him, their choreography modeled on what happens on the sidewalk when your bag of marbles bursts its seams. I did a lot of laughing at a routine that I'm not sure was meant to be funny. But an enterprising TV producer might want to explore the possibilities of using these guys in a domestic Flight of the Conchords.
- Biggest disappointment, even if you'd never heard of him before: Chris Rene, who seemed much more compelling in his audition footage than he did when he was noodling around with "Everyday People" with the spotlight on him. After he went back inside the house, L. A. Reid suggested to Rihanna that the sight of her had caused him to choke, and though Rihanna took this as good-natured joshing, a quick glimpse of Rene chattering about her inside made it look as if Reid might have hit the nail on the head.
- Show Motto: This was best articulated by the economically tragic, red-faced 42-year-old wedding DJ Tiger Budbill, proudly making the boast that seems to be all that so many of these dreamers hope to be able to make: "I made it through the song, [and] I hit some good notes."