The X Factor Recap: The Uncertainty of No-ing

After three episodes, The X Factor is turning out to be a little like that polarizing audition from Tiah Tolliver, the 19-year-old beauty with the cascade of bangs and tidal-wave pompadour who closed Wednesday night’s two-hour litany of tryouts from Chicago and Seattle.

In one corner, we had judge Paula Abdul crinkling her nose over Tiah’s sudden and not-exactly-welcome key changes during a cover of Shontelle’s “Impossible,” and in the other, we had Simon Cowell insisting that Tiah had true superstar potential. “I’ve got a real feeling about this girl!” he pleaded, worried Tiah’s X Factor run would be finished before it started.

The question is, how much blind trust are we willing to place in Simon? It’s not as if the man hasn’t led us to the promised land many times before — whether that destination was Kelly Clarkson singing “A Moment Like This” under a shower of confetti or Fantasia Barrino lifting us up and over a swaying Gospel choir with her rendition of “I Believe.”

And to be fair, when The X Factor is good, it’s really, really good. Oh, sure, with its relentlessly swelling soundtrack and carefully edited reaction shots, it’s about as organic as a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. But that doesn’t make it any less joyous when a guy like burly, bearded Josh Krajcik opens his mouth to sing “At Last,” and you realize that he’s been stuck in the back of a burrito restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, when maybe he should’ve been selling out stadiums. (Wait a second: Are there tears in my eyes from the smell of chopped onions, or am I just getting emotionally manipulated by shots of Josh’s adorable mother seizing with excitement?)

Still, when The X Factor is bad, it’s horrid — disappointing and predictable. Hey, there’s tall drink of water Steve Jones traveling via 18-wheeler (again). Oh, and here we are pretending that the open-audition cattle calls that draw tens of thousands of wannabes actually occur on the same day as the live auditions that take place in front of the judges. (Does this bait-and-switch do a damn thing to increase our enjoyment of the proceedings? I think not.) And here are the auditions presented with the same exact rhythms we’ve grown accustomed to over 10 seasons of American Idol — except with audience reaction shots and trumped-up production values. Yep, we’ve got another bad-singer montage: Lady who took 10 years of voice lessons and sings “Firework” as if there are 10,000 butterflies attacking her windpipe; male model disastrously attempting “Kiss from a Rose”; 45-year-old woman in a sheer lace number and red bra; sassy gray-haired lady who wants to be a judge; your finger twitching as it hovers above the remote control, considering the “fast-forward” option or maybe even a cleansing half-hour of Modern Family.

Honestly, didn’t it ever occur to Simon & Co. to break these tired patterns — unexpectedly inject a truly great vocalist into the midst of the “ha-ha, look at the deluded people!” moments — and force us to keep both eyes glued to the screen? Instead, three episodes in, I find myself fighting an overwhelming temptation to not wait for the commercial break to send a text to my mom or fold some socks or ask the hubby to refill my glass of sauvignon blanc.

For now, though, I’ll pull a Nicole Scurvywhatzit, see the steel in Simon’s eyes, and hope that we’ll see some fresh new spins on the genre when Boot Camp rounds begin next week. And with that in mind, let’s run down last night’s successful auditions from most- to least-promising.

* Josh Krajcik: Nope, this burly dude never had to lift an SUV off his own leg, or recover from a rhesus monkey attack while he was homeless and sleeping on a bench at the zoo. His backstory — my favorite kind of backstory, incidentally –is simply one of working a regular day job to pay the bills, and waiting for the right time to follow his incredibly enthusiastic mom’s advice of “Share your gift!” I loved how L.A. Reid said he thought Josh had come to the audition looking like a “before” — the better to dramatically transform himself as the competition continues. But whether or not he upgrades his sneakers or deep-conditions his beard, I’m looking forward to hearing more of the massive, gruff instrument that swooped and soared on Etta James’ “At Last.” This guy could really be a contendah!

* Drew Ryniewicz: Your average teenage girl auditioning for a reality singing competition would deliver a monologue about her Justin Bieber fandom with a slickness of purpose that would hint at her ability to also score a six-episode guest arc on iCarly or one day join the hideous ranks of the Bad Girls Club. But Drew, God love her, had none of that teen-star assembly-line sheen about her. “I could honestly throw up or pass out or something,” she squealed, before hitting the stage with a slowed-down, piano-driven spin of The Bieb’s “Baby” that showed a remarkable self-assurance and a much-appreciated willingness to take a risk. Nicole was right that Drew’s rendition was an improvement on the original, but I just hope that whatever happens in Boot Camp, Drew retains the kind of innocence that had her nervously making sure her sleeveless dress hadn’t slipped and accidentally revealed any cleavage after she jumped up and down for joy.

Elaine Gibbs: I don’t know why we only saw a few seconds of the 53-year-old grandmother delivering “You’ve Got a Friend” with a robust fervor that would make even Scotty McCreery raise a Gospel hand, but I am telling you, I’m not going…to be happy if we don’t follow her journey over the next few weeks.

Makenna and Brock: If this duo were a Lady Gaga chorus, they’d be singing “Caught in a Bad Showmance.” I mean, it was pretty clear that both parties realized an unrequited/unspoken love arc would make for better TV than a backstory about a pair of attractive young friends who make beautiful harmonies — just not in the bedroom. But while Brock won’t be winning any Emmys for his “I love her but she doesn’t know it” speech, I will say his unaffected voice blended quite nicely with Makenna’s rich, velvety quaver on the Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.” There’s nothing really showy about Makenna and Brock, but if they survive those So You Think You Can Dance-y group choreography shenanigans coming up in the next couple weeks, they could position themselves as the no-frills, “real music” alternative to some of X Factor‘s showier front-runners.

Beyond those four acts, I’d be willing to risk my ability to ever again type the words “Mishavonna Henson” in a recap that none of the rest of the episode’s “successful” tryouts featured our eventual $5 million winner:

* I actually kind of dug J. Mark Inman’s rearrangement of “Creep,” but his quirky dance moves and limited range peg him as a slightly more talented, and decidedly less shticky Norman Gentle. I did chuckle at Paula admitting she’d visited his home planet once or twice.

* Francesca Duncan seemed like a pretty girl with a pretty voice, but I question the taste level of any vocalist who chooses to audition with Mariah Carey’s done-to-death “Hero.”

* Runaway superlative alert: According to Paula, 16-year-old Skyelor Anderson showed “commitment that is unparalleled” when he kept singing a capella after his track malfunctioned during a rendition of “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right.” In his defense, the kid had an unaffected Southern charm, but he probably needs five years of voice lessons if he’s going to seriously compete at this level.

* Tiger Budbill: I’d have fallen in line with L.A. Reid and voted “no” after dude held a giant, if not mellifluous, note on “What’s Going On.” But Nicole likes people who have the tiger in them or something, and Simon decided it was the guy’s lucky day, and then Tiger wept with joy, and I was kind of happy the wedding DJ got his moment like this, y’know?

* Phillip Lomax: Anyone who utters “I’m a bit of a hipster” directly into a TV camera should be swallowed up by a trap door and forced to face off against The Rancor. But then Phillip scored four ‘yes’ votes for a thin, ridiculously affected vocal on “Fly Me to the Moon.” Maybe the judges are trying to flesh out the next round with folks whose spectacular downfalls will be pure, family entertainment?

* My inner feminist wanted to write a strongly worded email to Fox after that extended package of Simon implying Paula and Nicole wouldn’t vote in favor of attractive women. Really, X Factor, you had to go and perpetuate women-hating-women myths? Maybe we can get some gay slurs or racial stereotypes cued up in the coming weeks, too! And for the record, Paula and Nicole were absolutely right voting “no” to Tiah Tolliver. Her vocals careened more wildly than a malfunctioning tilt-a-whirl on “Impossible,” and her followup — during which I think girlfriend was saying “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sing” — showed no finesse or control. What is the point of requiring three yes votes if Simon is going to strong-arm his fellow panelists into reversing their “no” votes when he disagrees?

* Speaking of “no” votes, I’ve got to admit that something seriously crazy happened to my cable box during the audition where boy-band quartet 4Shore tackled Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.” The lead vocalist went flat as a thin-crust pizza on the opening verse, and the dude with the braids dissolved into a caterwauling wreck on the “come to my bed” portion of the bridge. And that’s where my cable went all wonky — mixing up the judges’ reactions from what was clearly a different audition: LA started saying Babyface and Boyz II Men would be proud, Simon was envisioning an international success America could be proud of, and Paula used the word “blessing.” If anyone can explain to me what I missed, please hit the comments and help a blogger out!

What did you think of Episode 3 of The X Factor? Who was your favorite singer? Did you disagree with any of the judges’ decisions? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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