Thanks to an unexpected office rivalry, I find myself properly hooked on the X Factor, another Simon Cowell singing contest that has been popular in the UK for years and just crossed the pond this year.
In case you don't watch, but still care: 32 acts (narrowed from thousands) are battling to win a 5 million dollar recording contract.
For the last two episodes, four competitor groups (boys, girls, over thirties and groups) have been split between four judges (Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid, Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul), and were shipped off to France, the Hamptons and California, respectively, to audition at audacious private homes allegedly owned by the judges themselves.
Unlike the typical American Idol episodes, set in slick theaters bathed in automatic light shows, these recent X Factor episodes boast beautiful ocean vistas and freshly landscaped lawns as backdrops. (I can’t get enough of Cowell perched poolside on an extravagant settee, barefoot and partially unbuttoned as white curtains in French doors billow behind him: one part Out of Africa, two parts Cruella de Vil.)
While the scenery is nice for those of us who don’t enjoy eternal summers, the atmosphere has a creepy, Daddy Warbucks fantasy feel about it, especially as contestants harp on the same theme in their interviews: they need the 5 million to support their families, to give their children opportunities they didn’t have.
X Factor hopefuls go on about how they are at a "precipice" facing down a dream when what they are really doing is looking over a precipice from the edge of Simon Cowell's private cliff-side property, which his hounds would push them over in a heart beat if they were to trespass any other day.
The X Factor tempts us into thinking the "dream" could come true for any of these folks, with a bit of luck and hard work.
Maybe it could.
But in the context of what's going on in the world, these singers seem to represent a little too closely the real unemployment line dressed up for our entertainment.
Too many contestants are prepared with generically told stories (possibly the editors' fault, not theirs) about how they could really use the cash to make their families happy...
Take for example, a member of the group the Stereo Hogzz from my hometown Houston, TX. He hopes his newborn daughter will never have to face the (unnamed) dark situations he had to as a kid. This after remarking on all the lovely trees around Paula Abdul’s estate: “There’s no trees in my hometown!” he exclaims.
There are, in fact, many trees in Houston. But I take his point – some neighborhoods are better canopied than others. (Boy, does that say a mouthful about opportunity in this country.)
Meanwhile, when Bothell’s Tiger Budbill (bless his heart), sitting on the edge of a garish fountain, points to Nicole Scherzinger’s (of the Pussy Cat Dolls) house, as the kind of “big house” he would like to own, I start to get a little nauseous.
And as Bremerton’s Tiah Tolliver emphasizes that her dream is to wake up and sing, rather than wake up and make sandwiches – I feel insulted. The show is really hammering this Tiny Tim thing down our throats.
We get it, Simon, being poor and having creative dreams at the same time is hard.
And how mean to tout this story line while dragging these poor souls around your Hamptons mega-mansion, letting them drool over brick drive ways and infinity pools...dreams which you're only going to snatch away from half of them in the next episode when the next cuts are announced.
Come on X Factor. Has the 1% vs 99% metaphor been lost on you?
Take Josh Krajcik, a seemingly down-to-earth burrito-maker who hopes his amazing voice will mean better opportunities for his 13-year-old daughter.
How can we send burrito guy home after making great TV out of his outlandish dream for wanting to go from burritos to recording studios?
Ugh! The X Factor is a cruel portrait of the American dream: in that for some, as George Carlin says, "you have to be asleep to believe in it."
For the record, there are lots of great singers on this show who seem to be focused on just the singing, namely the competing teams of my office pool: Team Lomax and Team Bell, who are both hailing from Seattle:
And my Team Lomax performed way better than Team Bell this round (take that, Brangien!). In spite of Team Bell's touted experience, Team Lomax brought more confidence, more charm, more originality - and just more of a satisfying performance all around.
But you can decide for yourself:
Next episode airs Tuesday night on Fox at 8 p.m. PST.
For those of you who only care about one thing: Yes, Paula Abdul is still insane.