'The X Factor': Like 'American Idol' With Bling?

After much hype, Simon Cowell's latest venture debuted on Fox, complete with attractive judges, glitzy stages and great talent

On Wednesday night, in the opening moments of The X Factor, cameras panned across screaming crowds of people, rambunctiously awaiting their shot at stardom. Naturally, this opening was reminiscent of American Idol.

Soon enough into the two-hour premiere of Simon Cowell's latest, long-awaited singing competition, this much was clear: Despite Cowell's repeated claims to the contrary, The X Factor IS just like American Idol. It's a souped-up Idol, one with higher production values, a faster pace and a budget that allows producers to pack much more into each episode. (Well, into this debut episode, anyway.)

Whereas Idol starts out by moving slowly from city to city, showcasing the good, the bad, and the mediocre, The X Factor is edited in a way that swoops in and out of town, scooping up promising contestants and flying on. We don't have to sit through the usual cattle call; the show's editors offer speedy montages of auditions, and linger only on the most promising ones.

Sure, we get a few extended segments with the very strange or craziest contenders. An elderly husband and wife, clearly trying for a Steve & Eydie vibe, make an absolute mess of "Unchained Melody," and later a creepy 43-year-old exposes himself on stage. But the spotlight is most often given to the judges and the contestants with a lot of talent, or at least a really good back story.

The editing is so fast-moving that we barely see the nice-guy, British host, Steve Jones, at all. (If his role continues to be this sparse, Jones won't be parlaying this gig into Ryan Seacrest-level stardom.) Instead, the show focuses on the glitz and drama of show business: the loud, dark, jam-packed arenas where the auditions take place; the financially burdened contestants who have so much to lose (or win); and the attractive judges at the center of it all.

During the first hour, that panel of VIPs consisted of Cowell, Paula Abdul, L.A. Reid, and Cheryl Cole. Then Cole was replaced by Nicole Scherzinger. In interviews, Cowell said that Cole was wrong for the show, in part because she had come across as "bewildered." She didn't seem that way in the clips that featured her. Of course, the show is very highly edited.

Subtlety isn't a strong point of American Idol, and it's even less so here. Not content to let viewers assess the dynamic between the judges on our own, Cowell tells the camera that there's a rivalry brewing between him and Reid, who's a very well respected record executive in his own right. Then we see a montage of the pair opining in opposite directions, followed by lots of sighs and eye rolling. Abdul, for her part, came off as clear-eyed and confident.

Maybe it's because of the accelerated pace and the swift editing, but Cowell appeared to dole out more compliments than insults, and he even seemed to be blown away by several contestants, even though this was just the first episode. 

Actually, right in the very first few minutes, he gushed over 13-year-old spitfire Rachel Crow (whose name we're told four times): "We're going to hear a lot about you." No doubt there were countless tone-deaf entries before Crow, but this show cuts to the quick. She is the very first contestant to take the stage (that we at home got to see), and the way she confidently belts out "Mercy" in front of an audience of 4,000 people is pretty amazing. Cowell tells her she's the reason they lowered the age limit to 12 for this competition. (In other words, "Take that, Idol!")

Around the half-way mark, we meet Stacy Francis, a 42-year-old (i.e. over the show-biz hill) single mother, with a toddler and baby in tow. Her back story: A bad boyfriend put her down so many times that she'd begun to believe him. Now he's gone, and she tells Cowell that she doesn't want to die with this music in her.

Singing "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman," Francis proceeds to bring the house down. Cowell, clearly pumped that he might have another Susan Boyle on his hands, tells her, "I've done this a long, long time. That was one of the best auditions I have ever heard in my life." Not to take away from Francis' stellar performance, but it does seem a little early in the season for Cowell to be making such pronouncements. More cynical viewers might conclude that Cowell is laying it on a bit thick in this much-hyped debut episode, which is his best shot at getting people hooked on the show.

The climax of the first episode features a 28-year-old ex-drug addict named Chris Rene. He's a garbage man by day, and a singer and rapper by night. And the judges are -- you got it -- blown away. 

"It's always my favorite feeling in the world when I sit in this chair and I meet a star for the first time," Cowell tells him. "There is something about you and what I like is the fact that maybe you need the show and maybe we need you."

Can The X Factor make this guy into a star? With enough money and the right editing, why not?

The next episode airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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