The X Factor: a show for people who like American Idol

Whether or not you loved, hated, or had other feelings about The X Factor depends entirely on whether you love, hate, or have other feelings about American Idol, because as the new show proved last night after its ridiculously over-promoted premiere, they are the same show.

Yes, I know the differences: a $5 million prize, Coke instead of Pepsi, older and younger singers, groups, and, eventually, the judges mentoring a group of contestants. (While the mentoring is the biggest difference, The Voice made that irrelevant, because who wants to be mentored by Paula Abdul or Simon Cowell when you can get mentored by Christina Aguilera or Adam Levine?)

But insisting that they are different shows is like saying chocolate cake with buttercream frosting and chocolate cake with vanilla frosting are two different things, especially because one has sprinkles. They are sibling shows: structurally, tonally, and thematically similar.

At best, The X Factor is an updated version of American Idol–although that show’s makeover last spring helped make sure that the new series wouldn’t make it immediately irrelevant. Here are some of the similarities and tiny differences that I noticed during the two-hour premiere:

  • The theme song sounds like a hybrid of the American Idol and America’s Got Talent theme songs.
  • The opening sequence also resembles a science fiction disaster movie: Idol’s is Independence Day, and X Factor‘s is like Deep Impact.
  • Host Steve Jones is much, much hotter and significantly less obnoxious than Ryan Seacrest. We’ll see how that holds up when the live shows start (his obnoxiousness; I doubt he’ll get uglier).
  • The judges were introduced as if they were on Iron Chef. The secret ingredient: American Idol.
  • The crowd is much more annoying, because they are larger and get to be present, and because the editors let us hear their noises way too much.
  • Everything we saw of Cheryl Cole made her seem like a perfectly competent judge, and while Nicole Scherzinger wasn’t as terrible as she was on The Sing-Off, there’s no obvious reason why she evaporated after the first hour. Either the editors are very, very good or there’s more to that story.
  • The contestants got way too much time to sing and/or act stupidly. The same bad singers were allowed to audition, doing nothing except undermining the series’ self-importance. It’s the same old parade of stupidity, and the lack of that nonsense on The Voice is just one of the things that made NBC’s version so much better.
  • Judging by the first episode alone, the groups category will be very tiny.
  • Everyone still tries too hard. A montage of conflict between L.A. Reid and Simon wasn’t backed up by too much actual disagreement, (although L.A. Reid is a decent judge). Paula Abdul dry heaving in the bathroom as a reaction to the dumbass who took off his pants on stage was so extreme that it felt like we were watching footage from something else. Paula said that performance “literally got me sick.” A penis, really?
  • The hours ended with a sad story that led to a strong audition. SHOCKER.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.