Coincidentally I’m in New York during the week of the X Factor USA final, the climax to the first season of the franchise over here. A couple of huge posters in Times Square advertise the show with Simon Cowell front of picture, beaming down on the hordes below. Cowell boasted rather opimistically that he would get 20 million viewers tuning in during the series, so a regular turnout of around 11 million must be seen as a disappointment for him, though it has been picked up for a second run next year.
The final does at least contain some decent acts, including big-voiced Melanie Amaro, who I felt was the most likely winner in my initial review piece, and her gravelly-voiced main rival Josh Krajcik. Outsider of three is Chris Rene, recently out of rehab and now a step away from the $5 million recording contract first prize. Like the UK version, the final will run over two nights in the US – Wednesday and Thursday – and both will be shown nearly 24 hours later on ITV2 in the UK.
I’ll come to the merits of the finalists later on, but first it’s worth analysing the state of the franchise after its first US outing, and how it has compared to the UK version.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the show has suffered from some rather desperate attempts to improve ratings. The first live show in both countries contained the same twist of each judge having to eliminate from within their own category. The US version did not go on to emulate the UK’s sequel to this twist, in which one of those eliminated – Amelia Lily – was later voted back in. However, the rejected-then-saved storyline had already played out far more gratuitously after judges’ houses in the US version.
Not many people bought the story when Cowell ‘rejected’ obvious choice Amaro at judges’ houses in favour of his ‘pet’ and pantomime villain Tiah Tolliver, only to be screened driving to Florida, knocking on Amaro’s door and offering her a second chance. It was no surprise that Tolliver was then eliminated by Cowell during that first live show, or that Amaro has since sailed through to the final. On Monday, the New York Times cited this as the most glaring example of “utterly uncovincing dramatics” in a show it describes as “a bloated, overwrought embarrassment” full of “clumsily manufactured drama”.
Some of the drama controversially revolved around its youngest contestants. You can enter USXF at just 13, compared to 16 at present in the UK, a tender age to put yourself on the line in front of a national audience. It created some uncomfortable if compelling viewing. Just watch the surly reaction of talented rapper Astro on finding out he was in the bottom two, and the toe-curlingly embarrassing drama played out by the elimination of Rachel Crow.
Another ‘controversial’ elimination among the youth brigade saw Cowell’s apparent favourite and top in initial bookmakers’ lists, Drew Ryniewicz, lose her sing-off by majority vote as the panel ‘ganged up’ against the head judge. The analogies between Drew and Janet Devlin which I made in my initial review piece had to some extent continued, and not just with song choices such as Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’. Her particular, folksy style was repeatedly berated as boring and predictable, but she stuck to it determinedly. Like Devlin, perceived as a ‘victim’ of the show, it might not do her potential career as a recording artist any harm.
Something Cowell definitely didn’t get right was to find or create a decent group among the US finalists. Little Mix’s success in the UK version, the first band to achieve it, is easily the brightest news for the franchise in 2011. In sharp contrast, USXF witnessed the noticeably weak groups category all gone by week 5. Thus the show quickly felt like just another Idol programme for individual acts alone. Having bands competing against individuals is one of the USPs of the format over its burgeoning rivals. Cowell should have found some decent standard bearers for this category, but it wasn’t to be.
Another criticism pointed out by the New York Times has been the amount of padding that goes into each episode in the US, describing “a tendency to overstuff” as “one of the show’s worst features”. Fears were expressed that this would especially be the case in this Thursday’s two-hour extravaganza, which reminds me of the Guardian story blaming falling ratings for the UK climax on ‘finals fatigue’.
Onto that final. I can’t personally recommend a bet and won’t be touching it myself given that I don’t know the US audience well enough. Hot favourite is Amaro from Florida, now 1/2, having been 3/1 when I wrote “if someone gave me a free bet, I’d side with Melanie” back in early November. The 19-year-old has a strong, big voice that works so well on these shows, and will help her sell plenty as a future recording artist too.
I stand by the idea that she’s the most likely winner though I have increasingly come to appreciate her main rival Krajcik during the live programmes. The 30-year-old from Ohio is a grizzled, Joe Cocker-style crooner, and whilst he understandably stole the show during rock week, he was surprisingly good out of his comfort zone with a dance theme too. The third finalist, Rene, is someway behind this pair in terms of raw talent, and I expect him to be first eliminated this week.
Ultimately, given its ratings and critics, the final is not going to be quite the buzzy national TV event that Simon Cowell would have hoped for, despite a reasonable standard of competition. There are some differences in the problems that the US and UK versions have faced, but many similarities. In terms of lessons learned, both have to cut down on the ever more obvious manufactured dramas that increasingly invite ridicule well beyond our hardy band of clued-up commenters.
Have you been following US X Factor? If so, what do you think of how the series has worked out and how does it compare with the UK show? Finally, who do you think will be crowned the winner this week? Let us know in the comments sections below.