'X Factor' Recap: Home Is Where the Coaching Is

The Final 32 visit the judges' mansions for some one-on-one time

Guest judge Rihanna meets with contestants on 'The X Factor.' Credit: Jeffrey Niera / FOX

Boot camp whittled the crop down to the Final 32, a phrase that's thrown around a lot this episode. Incidentally, calling it the Final 32 is a misnomer because a) there will be many more groups of finalists as the herd thins further, and b) the word "final" implies scarcity, but I'd love to have 32 of anything. The contestants are separated into groups that sound like menu options on the weirdest dating website: Girls Under 30, Boys Under 30, Over 30s, and Groups. Nicole Scherzinger is mentoring the Over-30s and she refers to her group as "The Overs" – the least flattering way imaginable to describe these poor people. LA Reid gets Boys, which makes sense since he has a history of turning boyz II men (ba dum ching). The oft-repeated clip in which he finds out he'll be coaching the Boys group and then laughs like a supervillain is rather unsettling. Finally, Paula Abdul has Groups and Simon Cowell gets the Girls. Let the mentoring begin!

Anyone giddily anticipating the chance to peer into the judges' insanely opulent homes, where the coaching takes place, had their expectations shunted. Outside of some brief flashes of piano-playing antics in LA's lounge, we don't really get the promised MTV Cribs-style grand tour just yet. Mostly, we see a lot of the judges' backyards, which all feature ample performance spaces – built in case of impromptu barbecue concerts, probably.

The groups are flown out to their mystery coach's property, only to find out who owns it upon arrival. Simon's compound is located in Paris, naturally. When he appears in a doorway, the girls go nuts, and a nine-person hug ensues. "It just hit me – I'm gonna have to perform in front of Simon Cowell!" Jazzlyn Little says, despite having already performed for Simon at least three times. Each judge this week gets a special guest to help decide the contestants' fate. Mariah Carey was supposed to be Simon's guest, but alas she couldn't make it because of Hurricane Irene. (H8 u, Irene.) Simon is left to judge alone . . . with a consortium of vocal coaches. The ever-fierce Simone Battle comes out wearing a shapeless crinoline cage-dress to do the Beatles' "Help!" as a ballad. It's pretty tasteful, considering. Tora Woloshin is visibly nervous before and during her dance remix of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." She gets more confident along the way, but never seems like she's feeling the song. The highlight of Simon's Sirens™ is golden-tressed Drew Ryniewicz, whose seated, bare-footed take on Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" is emotionally resonant and simply beautiful. "I think she's still too young," Simon says, but it seems like misdirection – this girl will be in the Final Four.

Paula's place has so many brick walkways and gardens, I was surprised there wasn't a topiary maze a la The Shining. The teeming mass of groups collectively quivers when they see her emerge. One of the anonymous ladies from 2Squared says of Paula: "She represents everything a woman wants to be." Um, I guess? Keeping up an X-Factor tradition of terrible names, the two new groups formed last week are Intensity and Lakota Rayne. The latter does pop-country group, which they demonstrate by singing an only slightly twangy "Born This Way." Afterward, the group basically asks for mercy, considering that they were reinvented as a group by Simon only recently, and it would be mean to kick them off so soon. The Brewer Boys, though, fail yet again to justify their existence on a perfectly rote cover of "The Only Girl in the World." Although they can wag their shaggy hair out of their eyes in unison, they can't seem to coordinate their dance moves. In contrast, though, the always color-coordinated 4Shore look rehearsed and polished. "They need to dirty up their style a little," says Paula. "That's their only con," guest judge Pharell agrees.

Nicole has a giant Spanish villa out in Malibu, and everybody looks suitably impressed. The applause when she's revealed to be the Over-30s judge is muted, though. Dexter Haygood is wearing his lucky jacket again, so it's clearly James Brown time. His version of "Crazy in Love" has a substantial amount more indistinct mumbling and grunting than Beyoncé's. "He made it his own," Nicole says. "Although I would like to have heard more of the actual song." Guest judge Enrique Iglesias seems at a loss to find something nice to say: "He was definitely entertaining." After it's over, Dexter has another in his ongoing series of crying jags. Stacey Francis gives "Purple Rain" her all, and it's very theatrical. Nicole is moved to tears, but Enrique is much more practical. "Is it good for today's market?" he asks. "Will it sell?" Real talk!

LA has an elegant ranch-like beachfront property that evokes his stature. ("I am so blessed to be on LA Reid's team," says Chris Rene.) He proves his pedigree by remaining very business-like throughout. Young bespectacled rapper Brian Bradley suddenly has the nickname "Astro" and nobody calls attention to it. Although Brian's luster has faded since his gimmicky debut, here he does an age-appropriate anti-bullying rap with tons of swagger and confident body movement. Afterward, superstar guest judge Rihanna, who has a surprisingly thick accent, seems singularly affected by his performance. "He's like a mini-J. Cole!" she gushes. "How can we measure him next to a singer?" LA considers. "Will the audience even accept him?" Phillip Lomax puts a typically croony spin on Rihanna's own "Please Don't Stop the Music" and LA wonders aloud whether Lomax's style works commercially. Nick Voss does "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" a little too chipper. LA looks unimpressed. "How was he compared to the other times he sang?" Ri-Ri asks. "He was better before," LA replies honestly, and things aren't looking too good for Nick.

On Sunday night's episode, the remaining contestants will perform, and then their number will be shortened by half, down to the Final 16. Perhaps we'll even be allowed inside the judges houses this time. (I promise to take off my shoes before going in!)

LAST EPISODE: A Swirling Cauldron of Drama