The most interesting television news of Premiere Week 2011 is the comparative underperformance of "The X Factor," which Fox and series creator Simon Cowell figured was going to be the ratings behemoth of the fall season. While 12-plus million viewers for its Wednesday opener are nothing to sneeze at, being beaten by a double dose of a three-year-old sitcom and a seven-year-old procedural crime drama during the second half of a two-hour series premiere of what was supposed to be the mother of all big-budget competition series has got to hurt. (ABC's "Modern Family" and CBS' "Criminal Minds" each attracted more than 14 million viewers.)
Fox can certainly take some comfort in its other big (and much better) news of the week: An audience of 10-plus million for the sweet and spunky new sitcom "New Girl." Apparently even executives at the network didn't think it would do that well. This is puzzling. Like many other critics, I have said since last June that "New Girl" is the best new series of the fall. There is nothing not to love about this well-written, perfectly cast gem. Its impressive arrival as Fox's highest-rated fall sitcom debut in ten years should surprise no one.
"The X Factor"'s relatively modest premiere should come as no surprise, either. It seems to me that the broadcast networks are under the impression that the audience appetite for singing competition series is insatiable. The half-dead season premiere for NBC's inexplicably extended "The Sing-Off" and the apparent vulnerability of "The X Factor" to its time period competitors may indicate that viewers are willing to devote only so much time each year to watching amateurs sing (or otherwise perform) like their lives depended on it.
I did, however, think that the cheerfully odd chemistry between Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul and the age range of the contestants (anyone age 12 and up can perform solo, in duets or in groups) might make "X Factor" a force to contend with right from the start. That said, I never expected the premiere to play as flat as it did. There was very little about it that felt fresh or new, except for the excitement of watching a handful of truly talented singers perform in front of thousands of people during their auditions. In those moments, "X Factor" was thrilling to watch. (Stacey Francis' tremulous yet titanic rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" will be remembered as one of the great television moments of 2011. So might trash collector and newly recovering drug addict Chris Rene's moving performance of his own original song, "Young Homie.".)
My biggest problem with "X Factor" was that after watching a few of those genuinely gifted unknowns perform so fantastically well, I had no patience with the auditions by the terrible singers, a component of audition shows that Cowell must still consider titillating. They work just fine during the "American Idol" audition shows because they take place in small rooms with only the judges watching, and the sometimes-outrageous give-and-take is a guilty pleasure of sorts. But the freaks, failures and just plain deluded folks that are happy to humiliate themselves in front of a national audience were a dreadful spectacle on "X Factor." The show is too big and expensive-looking for such stuff. Call them "Factor" Filler; every time one of them took to the stage I thought they were wasting my time and everyone else's.
Further, I was right there with the profoundly offended Paula Abdul when a particularly noxious fool named Gio got on stage, croaked out a wretched original song and then dropped his pants and began waving his wiener for all to see. Why would Fox include such a thing on a show that is intended for family viewing, and why would Cowell and his fellow producers allow someone to do that during a talent show that included minors? Were any 12- or 13-year-olds nearby at the time? "That was offensive, disgusting, distasteful and upsetting," Abdul cried. "Get him out of the building!" As she dashed off to a nearby men's room to vomit, I tried to figure out how Gio got into the building in the first place, and why Fox chose to glorify his behavior, and why the network also saw fit to feature the sound of Abdul barfing behind a closed door. (Maybe they were hoping for extra coverage on E!'s "The Soup"!)
The Gio incident made clear that "The X Factor" isn't necessarily the big shiny class act that we have been led to believe. I wonder how the show's mega-sponsor, Pepsi, feels about all this. It won't surprise me if people this week think of Gio's awful penis and Paula's terrible tummy trouble whenever they see the Pepsi logo. I'm glad I'm a Coke drinker.
So much about this show is so good -- especially the formidable contributions of music mogul L.A. Reid, the most intriguing new television personality of the fall -- that I think it unwise of Cowell and Co. to soil it with so much garbage. Shouldn't Simon be past that by now?