Wednesday's "X Factor" Season 3 premiere was a short and sweet affair that left viewers hankering for more — clocking in at just one hour and featuring mostly great singers like Lillie McCloud and Rion Paige. But Thursday's two-hour episode was more of a patience-tester, filled with the usual terrible reject auditions we've come to expect from a Simon Cowell show. (There was even one terrible performance from Simon Cowell himself. But of course, he was extremely kind when it came to his self-critique.)
There was the "nutty as a fruitcake" Paulina Rubio fangirl who sang karaoke-style, while reading lyrics off her phone. There was the dude who grunted Josh Turner's "Your Man" (aka the "babylockthemdoors" song) in a very deep voice, but otherwise had absolutely nothing in common with "American Idol's" Scotty McCreery (or with Josh Turner, for that matter). There was the screaming pageant girl whose performance Simon said was like "trying to chop down a tree with a banana"; some guy Simon likened to a "goldfish wanting to be a shark"; a duo that did a worse Ricky Martin cover than William Hung; a wannabe diva who compared herself to Whitney and Mariah but whose "Firework" went down in flames; and a wacky 56-year-old who claimed he was The Next Sinatra but wasn't even, well, The Next Frank Sinatra Jr.
Some of this was good fun, of course but as the 9 o'clock hour neared and I realized I had another 60 minutes of this to power through, my eyes started to glaze over like Britney Spears's did throughout Season 2. Sometimes shows like these are better in smaller — or let's call them "fun-sized" — reality bites.
Along the way, eight not-terrible singers thankfully did make it through to Boot Camp (or "The Four-Chair Challenge," or whatever the next stage of this competition is now called), and while all of them certainly sang better than Simon Cowell, a few were more impressive than others.
Rylie Brown – With her bubbly personality, cherub cheeks, and small-town-girl shtick, this 15-year-old seemed poised to become the next America's sweetheart of reality TV. The judges were all very sweet on her, that's for sure. But I was not entirely convinced. It wasn't the fact that she forgot the words to Zedd's "Clarity" (maybe she should have brought her phone onstage, too) and had to start over; while Simon would normally consider that an unforgivable offense, I understood why someone so young and so sheltered could get nervous. But then Rylie started singing for real, and I waited for Simon to whip out another one of his famous one-liners, preferably one involving feral cats. So many screechy, squeaky, shrilly notes! But Simon and the other judges went bizarrely easy on Rylie. "So you messed up, but who cares, when you've got a voice like that? I absolutely love you," raved Simon. Huh? Personally, I need some "clarity" regarding how this girl got through after such a shaky audition.
Jeff Brinkman – Jeff runs a doggy daycare center, which excited judge Kelly Rowland so much, she made this face (I can only imagine how Sharon Osbourne might have reacted):
Kelly probably wasn't the only woman in America charmed by Jeff. Along with his adorable day job, he's a devoted husband and dad (though not too devoted, obviously, since he thought it was perfectly acceptable for him to leave his wife and six-weeks-premature daughter at the hospital while he went to this audition). And the cougars who watch shows like "The X Factor" love rugged men who are good with kids and dogs. Jeff's performance of Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" was really nice — not perfect, but full of heart, and there was a raw, rough tone to his voice that slightly reminded me of Season 1's Josh Krajcik. "I love how sincere you are, and you mean every word," cooed Kelly. "I love your raspy voice," Paulina said, in her own rather raspy voice. Demi Lovato told Jeff he had "a beautiful recording voice, something that's going to sell records." And Simon called this a "brilliant, brilliant vocal." I think the judges overpraised Jeff, but he definitely showed potential. Maybe Simon can team Jeff up with the Olate Dogs from "Britain's Got Talent" and create some sort of cross-show supergroup.
Rachel Potter – Rachel was great, but she saddened/annoyed me with her constant moping about her positively ancient age of 29. Rachel seemed depressed to be in the "Over 25's" category, depressed to have to compete with 15-year-olds for record contracts, depressed because she feels she's running out of time. It's not like she hasn't had any career breaks — a quick Internet search shows she's done Broadway (WITH Ricky Martin!) and some television, including the MTV talent show "Legally Blonde: The Search For Elle Woods" — but clearly her lack of household-name status is still bumming her out, big-time. Of course, the show didn't mention anything about Rachel's past career (just as producers failed to address Wednesday auditioner Lillie McCloud's pro background) and just presented her as a lowly bartender struggling to eke out a country career in Nashville. Rachel tried out with what she said was a countrified version of Queen's "Somebody to Love," and while it wasn't really all that country — it was quite Broadway, actually — there was no denying that her vocal was stunning. She sang the heck out of that song, and we all know that Freddie Mercury ballads are NOT easy to pull off. I'm not quite sure Rachel should go the country route — maybe sticking to theater, or at least to pop, would make more sense for her — but this woman really should be some sort of star. "You're a beast," said Kelly. "You've had the best voice that I've heard. This industry is ready for you…Easiest yes I've said in both seasons," raved Demi. "It felt to me like you'd been wanting to give that performance for a long time to prove a point…and you proved your point," said Simon. Now Rachel just has to prove that country music really is her genre.
Jorge Pena – I am still trying to figure out how this creep got four yeses. He was already grossing me out when he drove his ice cream truck to his audition and then flirted with the girls in line, practically offering them some of his hot lovin' along with his icy desserts. He could have redeemed himself, in my eyes, if he'd auditioned with Van Halen's "Ice Cream Man," which would at least been cool and funny, but instead he tried to woo Paulina with a cheesy Spanish song. "I just wanna serenade the ladies," he purred. Ugh. He was so icky. He seemed like he belonged on another reality program: "The Pickup Artist," that slimy dating-advice show with Mystery on VH1. On top of all this, Jorge's voice was merely average. Demi wasn't having it when he rudely called her "woman," telling him, "You know what's really sexy? Humility. That's something that you lack a little bit." Paulina lectured him in Spanish and told him he needed to change his ways. Simon told him to "zip it." AND THEN THEY ALL PUT HIM THROUGH ANYWAY! Why? For the free ice cream?
Simone Torres - Along with Rachel, this incredibly likable 19-year-old was the highlight of the night. She had a lively, plucky personality (Simon called her a "funny little thing"), but when this goofy gal belted out "Mustang Sally," she was all woman. She had such a throaty, sexy voice, sort of a cross between Amy Winehouse and "American Idol's" Allison Iraheta, and I don't think anyone expected that sort of voice to come out of this quirky girl. "It was beyond expectations," said Paulina. "We all just want to hug you," gushed Demi. "This was one of the best auditions we've had all day," declared Kelly. "I disagree. This was the BEST audition," said Simon. Finally, a singer to really get excited about.
Roxxy Montana – I had high hopes for this brassy, sassy sister act from Detroit. They had a real spark, even in their pre-performance interview, and when I found out they'd be doing a Dreamgirls song, I fancied them being a real-life, modern-day Dreamettes. At first, though, I was really disappointed. And I could tell that they were disappointed, and that the judges were disappointed, too. The girls couldn't hear their music, so their performance quickly unraveled; only Temperance, the sister Simon called the group's "secret weapon," held things together. I almost thought Simon was going to recommend that Temperance go solo, but then Kelly (obviously a woman with a soft spot for female R&B trios) asked them to sing a cappella, and that was a huge improvement. Simon even called them the "best group we've ever had on 'The X Factor,' in terms of potential." It remains to be seen if they'll be able to handle singing with the show's notoriously loud house band (if they wanted to sing a cappella every night, they should've tried out for "The Sing-Off"), but they do have a certain something.
Al Calderon – This hunky waiter impressed me with his pinup-worthy looks and his awesome song choice, "Sara Smile" by Hall & Oates. (I've been rallying for a Hall & Oates theme night on one of these singing shows for years. Make it happen, Simon Cowell.) But I thought his vocals were just okay. That doesn't mean he won't go far on "The X Factor"; Kelly was oohing and aahing over his "gorgeous eyes" and practically asking him for a date the moment he walked onstage, and an extremely forgiving Simon told him, "There were some tuning issues, but I'm going to put that down to inexperience and nerves. I believe the music business is waiting for someone like you right now." I believe Simon is waiting for some other cute guys to try out for this show, so he can stick Al in manufactured boy band.
Denise Weeks – Denise was the show-ending sob story of the night. However, the saddest thing about Denise was her performance, because it just wasn't very good. After hearing about her troubles as a young widow, single mom, and subway singer, I got sucked into the emotion of it all and was totally rooting for her, but her "Greatest Love of All" was far from great. For some reason, the judges gave her a moment to collect herself and let her try again (what was going on with all the excuses and second chances this evening?), and Denise's second performance was definitely better. But there's no way this woman is making it to the top 16. She's just not strong enough. She'll be back underground — literally, in the subway — soon enough, even if Demi did tell her, "I have a feeling one day you're going to be singing for lots and lots of people."
Overall, this episode had me worried. Rachel and Simone showed great promise, but other than that, no one truly gave me goosies (as Jennifer Lopez would say) or Deeley chills (as Cat Deeley would say). Where was my Jennel Garcia, my Lyric Da Queen, my Josh Krajcik, my Panda Ross? Hopefully the show will find more contestants with (wait for it) the X factor when it returns next week.