Remember when the audition shows on Fox’s “American Idol” became must-see television specifically because Simon Cowell was so unforgiving with his withering condemnations of sub-par singers? The opposite is true of NBC’s “The Voice” and Fox’s “The X Factor.” On those shows, the auditions are all about playing to the viewers’ emotions and instantly investing them in the outcomes of certain performances. It’s not about waiting for people to make fools of themselves; it’s about hearing the next moving or inspirational story and then anxiously waiting to see or hear how the judges react to the performance that follows.
All that emotional engagement, edited or otherwise, seems to be working wonders for these shows. “The Voice” was starting to feel somewhat played out last spring by the end of its second season and “The X Factor” had been an increasingly empty exercise as its first hideously over-produced season rolled along one year ago. But they both returned this week in surprisingly fine and effective form.
The producers of both shows this season have outdone themselves in casting contestants with amazing personal stories. There’s great joy to be had in watching so many of them “triumph,” while it’s heart-wrenching to watch some of them fail. I’ve been complaining a lot lately about the many unimpressive new shows coming to the broadcast networks in the weeks ahead, and I’ve been suggesting that my problem with them is that they aren’t as thoughtfully conceived or emotionally engaging as so many scripted cable shows. But now I have to wonder if the power of certain reality competition shows is also part of the problem. More so even than on “Idol,” the contestants’ stories on “The Voice” and “The X Factor” often resonate in ways that characters’ personal dramas on scripted series rarely do.
In many instances it takes all of 60 seconds to make a viewer care about the outcome of a singer’s time on “The Voice” or “X Factor” stage. Music is everywhere in these shows, but they’re about so much more than the songs.
Like many other people, I’ll probably drift away from “The Voice” once its blind audition shows are over and its less dynamic mentoring and competition cycles begin (unless the producers have found a way to fix them). Until then, I won’t miss a minute. Every component this season is firing on all levels, and the emotional connectivity of it all is a marvel of modern television production and presentation.
As elaborate as “The Voice” can be, there is an unshakable intimacy about it that never allows it to become a gaudy spectacle or to feel overproduced. Much of the credit for that has to go to judges Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green, whose four-way chemistry and cheeky combativeness has happily intensified with time. They have become the most engaging collection of judges on any talent show anywhere.
As for “The X Factor,” it is poised to become even bigger and more ove-loaded than it was last year, largely due to the addition of Britney Spears, a performer who can tantalize tabloid editors and gossip bloggers like few others, and Demi Lovato, who is herself no stranger to controversy.
That said, something fascinating happened during this week’s season premiere: Two contestants stole the spotlight from everyone and everything around them, one for the right reason, and one for reasons best described as unfortunate. The latter was Don Philip, a singer of questionable talent who had recorded a duet with Spears in 1999 but had not seen her since. He choked up on stage, claiming not to have felt “worthy” when he worked with Spears all those years ago, then asserting that he now wanted “his shot.” Then, in one of the most awkward segments of any talent show ever, he sang and was average at best, leaving Spears at a near loss for words.
Four polite rejections later, Philip completely broke down backstage. According to reports, Philip actually came out while on stage, claiming that his career has never taken off because he was struggling with being gay. But all of that was edited out of the telecast. We may never again be able to trust what we’re watching on “The X Factor,” but Philip’s time on stage was riveting.
So was the segment with 19-year-old Jillian Jensen, who tearfully revealed that she had been “severely” bullied for many years and had found some comfort when Demi Lovato famously revealed that she, too, had once been bullied in school. It seemed that all of the pain Jensen had absorbed over the years was released in her knockout performance, after which she wept in Lovato’s arms. There wasn’t a dry eye in the arena. Even the notoriously icy Simon Cowell admitted to being very deeply moved.
Altogether, Jensen’s time on the show made for truly unforgettable television. What a shame that the producers of “The X Factor” feel compelled to make their show as big and loud and boisterous as possible when its strongest moments are so profoundly intimate.