X Factor surprises but still gets beaten by a weaker Voice

I wanted nothing more than a reason to write off The X Factor: People may have watched last fall, but it was a show bankrupt of new ideas that was, at best, a slightly evolved version of American Idol. And it was crushed creatively by The Voice, which dumped most of the conventions of a too-familiar format and replaced them with something better.

First, in the ratings battle between the two shows, they tied among people 18 to 49 but The Voice had 2.2 million more viewers. However, during the hour that they faced off directly, NBC’s show won, Marc Berman reports. And Vulture reports that the debut of Britney Spears and Demi Lovato “delivered the show’s smallest audience ever.”

Despite the victory, NBC’s The Voice squandered its four-hour head start on Fox. The show that once seemed fresh now seems dull, perhaps because they got greedy and decided to start airing it twice a year. The singing and stories remain strong, but the coaches–once the best part of the show–were largely unwilling to press their buttons without being goaded into it by other coaches, and their interaction now feels solidly one-note.

Meanwhile, X Factor surprised. Yes, it is still basically American Idol, parading both delusional and surprising singers in front of judges to get the same type of critique Simon Cowell has always given. It’s just so tiring, as were the lame production and editing tricks, like faking silence after an audition, never mind the constant fake crowd noises that were way above what was either possible or plausible considering the footage.

A few auditions stood out, such as the one with the three-guy non-boy band boy band and the devastating one from a guy who sang with Britney years ago; his face just sank as the judges one by one told him no, and then he had a breakdown backstage.

Interestingly, that auditioner, Don Philip, is yet another example of a Fox singing competition closeting a gay person. MJ’s Big Blog reported that at the San Francisco auditions, first talked about coming out as gay, and said that was challenging because neither his parents nor Britney approved. Both LA Reid and Simon Cowell interrupted and told him he was making Britney uncomfortable, and then he sang. That was all edited out last night, but may help to explain his reaction.

But X Factor also went the predictable route with some auditions, like the one that closed the episode. The story of being bullied and the sadness in her voice were very tragic, and bullying is awful, but presenting the story in the most melodramatic way possible just causes me to disengage, because I’ve seen that presentation before.

New judges Demi Lovato and Britney Spears weren’t revelations, though I think Demi has the potential to be a break-out judge. Britney was surprisingly honest, neither Paula Abdul nor Kara DioGuardi, perhaps because the editors were on her side.

What really worked for me, though, was the host-less, behind-the-scenes format. Shot like The Hills, not a glossy network studio competition, most of what we saw felt genuinely unscripted. Even the stand-up interviews seemed to include only the most unexpected quotes and very little of the typical biographical stuff.

For the first half-hour or so, the editors used two people, Kaci Newton and her sister Kaylee, as quasi-hosts, including bitchy things they said about other auditioners. It was very strange and really watchable. Best of all, though, was the green room footage of Simon Cowell and Demi Lovato bantering, with Simon joking about her corrupting a member of One Direction, the boy band that he formed on the UK X Factor.

It was natural, amusing, and real–which is something we’re not quite used to with Simon Cowell or his music competition series. I want more of that and less of the same-old singing competition crap.

Review: Married at First Sight

Marriage At First Sight

In an era of Tinder and Grindr, instant acceptance or dismissal of a potential partner, or instant sex with another body, Married at First Sight offers the thrill of watching strangers deal with the very basics of relationships.

Beyond the headline-grabbing premise, the series has turned out to be a stripped-down, authentic exploration of something very interesting. Read the full review.

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.