The X Factor Recap: Dallas (and Miami), We Have Multiple Problems

I kicked off my recap of The X Factor‘s series premiere with a multiple choice question, so it seems somehow fitting to also begin our discussion of its sophomore outing by asking everyone to get out their No. 2 pencils and grapple with this mind-bender: A mega-hyped talent competition is airing its second episode, and 50 minutes in, the most entertaining aspect is a cellphone ad starring the show’s ornery British judge: How many minutes until you change the channel, or else find yourself mesmerized by a filthy, half-deflated basketball that undoubtedly deserves the Emmy for Outstanding Prop in a Reality Series Backstory?

Seriously, were I not hopelessly devoted to the idea that The X Factor can (and will) unearth my next musical obsession in the same way Idol brought me Haley Reinhart, Allison Iraheta, and Fantasia Barrino (just to name a few), I might’ve mustered up the courage to change the channel to The CW for my newest and guiltiest pleasure, The Secret Circle. And that would’ve been a shame, really. Because in a 10-minute period from 8:50-9:00 PM ET, The X Factor suddenly rallied with a quintet of first-rate auditions that made me feel optimistic about giving up my evenings to Simon Cowell & Co. every Wednesday and Thursday night between now and Christmas.

Of course, that 10 minute burst of entertainment also raised an obvious burning question (especially in light of The X Factor‘s not-exactly-dominant initial ratings): Why hold back on showing us the talent? Seriously, is there a single person alive who wouldn’t have gladly traded two minutes of Dylan Lawson, the soft-spoken Kentucky teenager who sold his truck for a chance to channel a demon from Hell on the X Factor stage, for an extended listen to saucy girl group 2SQUAR’D or that bearded dude who had Nicole Scherzinger experiencing a waking daydream about white picket fences and backyard jungle gyms?

What stuns me is that someone as seemingly savvy as Simon Cowell missed the memo that there’s really nothing fresh or funny about pointing and jeering at overweight mother-daughter duos or desperate wannabes who think the height of comedy is a goofy wig and a heightened/indignant reaction to a ‘no’ vote from Paula Abdul. Even worse, The X Factor judges don’t seem to be working particularly hard to whip up clever rejoinders to these tiresome fameosexuals. If the best L.A. Reid can come up with on the fly is “I wanted to slit my wrists,” then please, someone hire a writer to cook up a list of colorful zingers he can keep on his desk and hurl at will.

But anyway…back to the telecast. This is supposed to be a recap, I guess, and not a litany of complaints. That said, why bother to delve too deeply into Thursday’s opening half hour, which featured Ashley Sansone and her Kermit-like warble doing bad things to “Piece of My Heart” (an incredible song that deserves a one-year vacation from televised singing competitions); some chick in a blond flip wig whose name I won’t mention (thus denying her the additional thrill of that Google Alert you know she’s set up for herself); and that relative of The Dreamgirlz whose temper tantrum caused his mother to deliver a retort that should probably serve as a life motto for 40 percent of people on U.S. television at any given moment nowadays: “That’s enough. You’re embarrassing your family.”

Nope, I can’t and won’t talk about these middle-bad auditions anymore, because the English language doesn’t have enough synonyms for demoralizing, soul-crushing, lame, wasteful, unamusing, humorless, and dreadful. Let’s instead focus on the folks who scored at least three ‘yes’ votes from the judges’ panel:

* Nick Voss: As one of seven people living in a three-bedroom house, Nick apparently has to grapple with such severe overcrowding that he’s had several accidents with his razorblade, causing a striped pattern on the side of his head and a broken eyebrow. All kidding aside, though, I’m not quite sure how this guy scored four ‘yes’ votes — or even one — based on his rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Trouble.” Dude’s voice had more cracks than an inner-city sidewalk, and despite his resemblance to Jimmy Ray I wasn’t seeing pop-star potential. L.A. Reid was at least honest enough to admit Nick’s voice wasn’t great, but that he qualified under the criteria of the “entertainment business.” Still, how to explain Simon’s gushing, “Nick, I absolutely love you”? A direct response to declining expectations?

* Marivana Viscuso: Simon said her rendition of “Summertime” sounded like “wolves mating in the forest” — “Bravo! Tonight is full moon! That’s why!” Marivana retorted — but to my ears, this loba had a tentative grasp on pitch, and zero sense of rhythm. But hey, send her to the next round anyway!

* 2SQUAR’D (pictured): Let’s get a genuine round of applause for the first act of The X Factor season to convince me that a “groups” category is worthwhile! Granted, these ladies desperately need some styling help (unless Vogue’s September issue suddenly endorsed puckered white lycra), but they somehow managed to create a winning world-beat rhythm without so much as a hint of a background track. Their harmonies were tight, and unless my Google search of their lyrics is lying, this may have actually been an original track. (Hmmm…maybe if the producers had given them more than 30 seconds of airtime, we could’ve had that burning question answered.) Here’s hoping more screentime is in the cards come Boot Camp time.

* Kendra Williams: Another blink-and-you-missed-her contestant, Kendra brought more depth and emotion to her snippet of “Almost Home” than Thia Megia, Karen Rodriguez, and Ashthon Jones did in their combined American Idol Season 10 oeuvre. This, of course, means X Factor will probably give her the “side of milk carton” treatment for the remainder of the season. (Insert sad trombone here.)

* Brendan O’Hara: Nicole Scherzinger has been about as exciting as an uncooked piece of penne in her role as X Factor judge, but I couldn’t blame the gal for asking “family or single?” from this tall, bearded crooner. “You could sell a ton of records,” noted Simon, but of course, he had the advantage of hearing more than a 15-second snippet of what, again, I believe may have been an original track. (p.s. If X Factor left you wanting for a little more of Brendan’s sound, he’s got music streaming on his Web site.)

* Jeremiah Pagan: This kid’s claim that he’s one of only seven male sopranos in the world is kind of like me saying I’m the only reality TV recapper on the internet. (Except for my claim is totally true, yo!). But questionable fact-checking aside, his rendition of Whitney Houseton’s “Try It on My Own” was lovely. Now why do I get the feeling that the Return of Simon will also mean the Return of the Sweeping Ballad Aesthetic? Speaking of which…

* Melanie Amaro: Hot damn! I know the show’s producers worked so hard to show us we were witnessing a miracle that they did everything short of having Melanie touch a wheelchair-bound grandmother and restore her power to walk, but hot damn, this totally unassuming 18-year-old can saaaaaaaaaaang. I loved how she matter-of-factly answered Simon’s “you any good?” query by responding, “I’ll let you determine that.” And it only took a few seconds of her cover of Beyonce’s “Listen” to know the answer. As the song increased in emotional intensity, Melanie’s voice grew as rapidly and magically as Jack’s beanstalk, and I understood why that dude in the audience was on his feet and testifying. Is Melanie’s style a little old-fashioned? Sure. Does she carry herself with the demeanor of an average girl sitting in the quad working on her chemistry homework? Absolutely. Am I dying to see what one of X Factor’s judges can do with all that raw talent? Holy smokes, that’s reason enough to ride this uncertain train all the way to Halloween.

* Dexter Haygood: Before we discuss the potential of the 49-year-old, erstwhile member of mid-80s pop act X-Avion, we’ve got to discuss THAT BASKETBALL. I’m not sure if you noticed it, sitting half-deflated, covered in dirt, and totally depressed in the background of Dexter’s interview package, but my word! As Aretha Franklin once sang, there just ain’t no way that thing was sitting around on a raised pedestal within sight of the X Factor cameras. Some savvy production assistant had to place it there, as a cosmic reminder of Just. How. Sad. Dexter’s life had become. DO NOT MISS YOUR EMOTIONAL CUES, AUDIENCE, OKAY?

Okay. Anyway, Dexter came into his audition in his tattered denim jacket and monster clogs ready to blow the judges away with his rendition of “Sex Machine,” but Simon & Co. dismissed it as nothing more than James Brown tribute-band material. But there was something about this guy — a note from a producer, perchance? — that prompted Simon to give him one more chance: “Fifteen seconds. A capella. You. Go,” said the cranky Brit, and just like that Dexter launched into…another James Brown cover? Okay, okay, I’m being more sarcastic than I really want to. Certainly Dexter delivered his ditty with all the pain and desperation of a guy who once got so close — opening for Hall & Oates back in ’84 — but never really touched the dream. Forty-nine, living out of his car trunk, having to belt his guts out for a Pussycat Doll young enough to be one of his children. It’s hard not to feel something for a guy like that, a guy who can sing just a snippet of an a capella number and make you feel it down to your knees. A guy who didn’t need the “inspirational” piano music to swell as the judges deliberated, or the shots of the audience on its feet, or that damned basketball. I did get a little misty when it was all said and done, and Dexter hugged host Steve Jones and wept. “I’ve been doing this all my life.” See you at boot camp, good sir!

* Caitlin Koch: And finally, there’s the matter of this 21-year-old rugby coach who sort of sauntered onto the stage all casual-like, answered a few questions about her rough-and-tumble sport, and then with just a hint of a knowing smile, informed the panel she was about to sing “‘Stop in the Name of Love’ — done a little differently.” Accompanied by a simple piano track that turned the Supremes’ classic into a haunting ballad from a woman asking her man for fidelity. As L.A. noted, we got to witness something “really, really special” from a woman who’s got a Norah Jones- or Toni Childs-like ability to be as powerful when she whispers as when she shouts.

And now, before I turn things over to you, a couple quick thoughts on a couple of unsuccessful auditions:

* I appreciated seeing the judges turn down Caitlynne Curtis, a vocalist who wasn’t a total train wreck, but clearly wasn’t ready for the big show. Sometimes it’s those on-the-fence scenarios — do we take a chance on a kid with a little potential, or send her back to the salt mines to work on her gift? — that create more interesting television than exercises in obviousness. I just wish someone had yelled “cut!” before Caitlynne dissolved into a tomato-red, weeping husk of a teenager, looking like she’d just been selected to compete in The Hunger Games.

* I don’t know who thought the whole “I see ghosts” montage was amusing, but their sense of humor was as badly out of tune as anything we saw during the two-hour telecast.

* If Nick Voss made the cut on the basis of “entertainment value,” who not that adorkable mountain of blonde hair Jonny Rogers? Sure, Simon was right that he came off like a Justin Bieber doll that came off a defective Chinese assembly line, but the backing track of his original song wasn’t actually terrible, and it might’ve been fun to see him have a choreography lesson with Paula, or maybe Robin Antin, no?

* That Curtis Lawson dude totally sounded like a didjeridoo. Maybe Crystal Bowersox can employ him on her next tour?

And as for “lippy, gobby” Xander Alexander, I turn the conversation over to you. With another week’s worth of auditions coming up, I can’t afford to deplete my arsenal of disdainful adjectives, and I suspect that scoring 10 minutes of solid airtime (even negative airtime) was already victory enough for the saucy, fame-seeker. Dontcha think?

What did you think of Episode 2 of X Factor? Better or worse than the series premiere? Are you flinching at the talent-to-trash ratio? And did the few good auditions at least get you excited enough to stick with the show next week? Sound off below, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!