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The X Factor Live: It’s Not Idol. And That’s Not a Compliment

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Live from the surface of the sun, Tiah Tolliver performs on The X Factor.

When Simon Cowell announced plans to launch The X Factor on Fox, I figured I had a bead on it: it would be more or less another version of American Idol in the fall, with different talent groupings. Which would be fine, but I probably wouldn’t watch it, because there was already one Idol.

I was wrong. The X Factor aired its first live show last night–the true test of a program like this–and as it turned out, there were many, many different reasons not to want to watch it:

The length: Two and a half hours. 150 minutes. No primetime TV program should be more than two hours long unless it involves a ball, uniforms and possibly multiple overtimes. Women have given birth in less time than it took to stage the first live X Factor, and it was probably a more pleasant, quieter process. Which brings us to…

The bombast: Where do they shoot this show, on the surface of the sun? Lights! Flames! Hundreds of dancers! Videos of flaming birds, or something! I’m pretty sure that, when they flick on the power to The X Factor set, all the lights briefly flicker on the other side of the Earth. Sorry, China!

Did I mention the dancers?: Note to producers: if even Paula Abdul is moved to say, “I wish there weren’t so many dancers”–you have too many dancers. Seriously, it was as if the show was designed on the philosophy, “Like an Oscars production number, but more over-the-top.” It’s not just that the frenetic hoofing was ridiculous—it was, the plaid-capped go-go girls, the dancers accompanying even Josh’s dirge version of “Forever Young”—but for the most part, it overwhelmed the singing performances. At which point we have to address…

The talent: Some of the choices here left me seriously questioning, as Tim Gunn would put it, the show’s “taste level.” The Brewer Boys? They may be very talented musically for all I know, but performed a bizarre mashup that made them sound like a jugband Hall and Oates. Lakoda Rayne? Thanks to you, some poor stripper now has to find a new name. The numerous misguided ’80s rearrangements? I’m not going into detail on the strength of the vocals–there were a couple standouts, and right now I’m betting Drew goes home with the jackpot–largely because the sound mix was so muddy, it was simply hard to gauge the vocals. Which left us to depend on…

The judges: …who spent far more time praising and critiquing each other rather than the singers. Every contestant, apparently, was great: the only problem, if there was any, was the song choice of their particular judge-mentor. Number one, Simon and crew: it’s not about you. Number two: this approach helps no one–not the acts themselves, who could gain from constructive criticism, and not the home audience, who (as Idol taught us) need to see an arc of artistic growth over the season. Is it too much to hope for help from…

The host?: Yes it is. Never have I appreciated Ryan Seacrest’s work so much until I saw the live-action Steve Jones, rehearsed, smarmy and exuding absolutely no empathy. One very strong plus in his favor, though: he brought the show in on time, controlling the judges’ speaking time like it was a military operation.

And for that I thank him. Really, all my issues listed above add up to one thing: an overbearing pall of corniness that may not keep X Factor from getting an audience but makes it hard to take its contestants seriously as professionals.

It’s not all negative, though. I do have to give up some respect for Leroy Bell, America’s hottest 60 year old. If only the competition-singing genre were aging so well.