'X Factor' tries to put new mix on old tricks


8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Fox.

The opening installment of "The X Factor" doesn't have much in the way of judicial fireworks. But, more to the point, it quickly becomes clear that this series, which has billed itself as a new type of competition show, really just remixes the well-established gimmicks of the earlier entries in the genre.

And that makes the Simon Cowell magic - in addition to being one of four judges, he is also the show's creator - seem diminished. This magician no longer has a curtain hiding the secrets of his tricks.

A few wrinkles distinguish the show from "American Idol": A broad age range for competitors - tweeners and octogenarians among the opening-episode performers - and the use of a live audience and a full panel of judges right from the early auditions. (Although the cameras repeatedly show thousands of people at the cattle calls in various cities, just how those thousands are reduced to the few the judges see is not made clear.)

The multigenerational thing works nicely, but the live audience one doesn't. It immediately stacks the deck in favor of belters, those types of singers who may have only a passing acquaintance with their song's melody but can burst eardrums. The crowd goes wild. The judges cave in. Repeat every 15 minutes or so.

If, as some say, the X factor in "The X Factor" refers to the audience's role, that's a recipe that favors the lowest common denominator.

Two of the other judges are familiar: L.A. Reid, the record producer, and Paula Abdul. (Steve Jones is the irrelevant host.) The opening episode gives a surprising amount of time to Cheryl Cole, a British pop star whom Cowell jettisoned from the panel last spring, during auditions.

In the premiere she just kind of disappears midshow, without much explanation, and suddenly Nicole Scherzinger of Pussycat Dolls is in her chair. It's a downgrade. Cole showed glimmers of being interesting; in two seasons as a judge on "The Sing-Off" on NBC, Scherzinger was a pretty face but, judicially speaking, not much more than a seat warmer.

After the audition phase "The X Factor" will pit judge against judge as the contestants are divided into groups (gals, guys, over-30s and groups), and each judge is assigned to one group as coach.

In the opening episode it falls to a precocious 13-year-old named Rachel Crow to try to hold the viewing audience. She gives the show's first full-fledged performance, and it comes just as casual viewers are realizing that "The X Factor," despite its $5 million prize, is the same-old-same-old and are reaching for their remotes.

The kid does have a voice. Viewers who hang around will be treated to a few more arresting performers, as well as a few who were let through the screening process only to give the judges a chance to use their "I'm appalled" faces. One of those causes Cowell to say, "I put $5 million on the line here, and that appeared."

Just what the "that" is causes some people, including one of the judges, to leave the auditorium. It's the premiere's most interesting moment.