You know how sometimes a rock star will break free from the band that's holding him back, so he can make the solo album that will finally express his true artistic vision? And then it sounds exactly like the band? That's what's going on with The X Factor. It's Simon Cowell's solo record, but it turns out to be just what Porno for Pyros were to Jane's Addiction. He's got the same collection of risqué low-cut V-necks, and the same sour wit. But now that he's also the boss, he has even more reason to be contentious – like when one contestant drops his pants, Cowell sniffs, "I put 5 million dollars on the line here, and that appeared."
The X Factor is the singing competition that aims to crush all others, from American Idol, which surprisingly surged after Cowell's departure, to The Voice, the summer's rookie success. It has a bigger purse, and a wider range of contestants. But except for the different logo on the soda cups it looks exactly like Idol, just cranked up to spectacular levels of hype and with more dry ice. You have to imagine that even the cameramen are dancing around with jazz hands every time Simon says the magic words, "Five million dollars!"
Scouting for the next singing sensation may be the familiar premise of The X Factor, but it already has the only star it needs: Simon's ego. This time around, there's no one nearby to compete with him or block his eyebrows. If he wanted to, he could have recruited a Cee Lo or a J.Lo. But he didn't want another outsize personality. He uses his underlings as decoration, like the henchmen in an old Batman rerun. It's all about one man's desire to be the Man.
L.A. Reid, the former Island Def Jam honcho, takes over the Randy Jackson role of the slick music-industry insider, and he's a lot funnier than the Dawg ever was. What I love about him is that every time he disagrees with Simon, you can tell that this is a guy who's not really used to having conversations. He's used to giving orders. So even though he's set up as Simon's sparring partner, he's not someone who's going to steal the spotlight. If Simon wanted a true debate partner, he would have gotten a guy less used to getting his own way.
As for Paula, it's just good to have her back where she belongs, trembling on the verge of either a get-up-and-boogie frenzy or a crying jag or an incoherently babbled speech about believing in your dreams. (Or all three!) Goddamn, we all missed you, Paula. Not enough to watch Live to Dance or anything, but we all missed you.
It's not clear why Simon wanted a fourth judge, since that never worked on Idol, but it really sums up his ambitions that of all the divas he could have recruited, à la Christina Aguilera on The Voice, he went for one of the Pussycat Dolls. All Nicole Scherzinger knows how to do is quiver like she's choking back pageant-queen tears. Excuse me, Ms. Scherzinger, but you are sitting at the judge's table with Paula Abdul, the most illustrious weeper in reality-TV history. You do not walk into Paula's house and try to pull that I-can-cry-harder shit. Ever. It's like wandering into the Yankees' bullpen and saying, "Yo, Mariano, mind if I finish this one up?"
Surprisingly, the team's weakness is the glaring absence of Ryan Seacrest – that is, somebody with an ego as big as Simon's. The very sight of Seacrest, who liked to make clear whenever he could that he didn't fear or respect the British bitch queen, seemed to baffle and annoy Simon. The clashes with Seacrest were a key part of the Idol chemistry – that's really when we saw Simon at his most human, at least once in a while.
Simon is indulging all his ego's whims here, basking in his hanging-judge routine – and that's exactly what he should do. Who wants to see him be a team player? Who wants to see him express basic modesty or decency? (Yeesh – what a queasy thought.)
Idol had massive success after Simon left, by playing up the positivity, with Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez gushing love at everyone in sight. But it's reassuring that Simon wasn't tempted to go that route, because it'd be a waste of his uniquely bilious charisma. The stars of Idol were always the contestants, just as the star of The Voice was the kid with the voice. But The X Factor is all about Simon's cosmic grudge against the universe. That's what's great about it – no matter what talents and personalities get discovered on The X Factor, none of them can compete with watching Simon revel in his role as the unchallenged king.
• 'X Factor' Recap: Almost Everyone's a Winner
• 'X Factor' Recap: Tweens, Hard Luck Stories and a Freak or Two
• 'The Voice': Idol's Wild Child
• Simon Cowell: 'X Factor' Could be Bigger Than 'Idol'
• 'American Idol' Creator Sues Fox Over 'X Factor'