The X Factor Season 2 Premiere Recap: Oops!...They Did It Again [Updated]

x factor quatreleLightning flashed. Crazy people spat and swore. Someone got carried out on a stretcher. And then, a geometric meteor streaked toward the Statue of Liberty.

This is…the cold open of The X Factor‘s Season 2 premiere?

Lest you found yourself confused, Simon Cowell & Co. quickly cut from the intergalactic-themed credits to a familiar image: A convoy of X Factor-branded 18-wheelers driving through the barren highways of the American heartland. (Little known “fact”: Steve Jones is still on the payroll, but this year he’s behind the wheel of one of those trucks, rather than the microphone.)

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Another thing that hasn’t changed about The X Factor? There isn’t a more prepackaged, contrived, overly processed reality competition on TV today. (What other show would cast a cruel blonde villainess straight out of Mean Girls casting?) But then again, you could use those very adjectives to describe a slice of Sunbeam Bread, and that doesn’t mean it’s not the world’s most perfect foundation for a grilled-cheese (product) sandwich, now does it?

Obviously, though, the real question hanging over the show’s second season centered on the reconfigured judges’ panel. How would Britney Spears and Demi Lovato fare in the seats formerly occupied by Nicole Whatshernameagain and Paula Abdul? Spears came off as charming and refreshingly honest, even if her eyes occasionally flashed the primal fear of a person who’s just woken up in a strange bed and wondered “Where am I and how the hell did I get here?” Lovato, for her part, was a less distinctive presence, but served her purpose in giving Simon a partner with whom he could verbally parry and thrust over the course of the two-hour telecast. (Best zinger: Cooing that the audience would be “so impressed by [his] new outfit” — Cowell’s standard delapidated white t-shirt — “that they’ve never seen before.”)

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And best of all, after almost 120 minutes of good but not mind-bending talent — we only saw six successful auditions the entire episode, a paltry tally of one every 20 minutes — the show gave us a legitimate pop-rock hopeful in Jannel Garcia, whose ferocious cover of Grace Potter’s “Paris (Ooh La La)” headed to the opposite pole from the one inhabited by Simon’s latest creation, One Direction. (And that’s what makes her beautiful-oh-oh…)

I just wish that Cowell & Co. had a little more faith in the X Factor audience than to set every single audition up with such a carefully coiffed and edited backstory.

I mean, wasn’t the gorgeous single mom/nursing student inspiring enough without the extended counteraction of showing the bitchy blonde sisters making fun of the run in her stocking? Wouldn’t the skater-boy trio have been more appealing if we hadn’t had to endure their eye-rolling disdain for the monotone former boy-bander. (Note to the “dudes”: It’s better not to boast about your disdain for pre-fab music and all its trappings it’s clear you and your eyebrow-sculptor are on a first name basis.)

Simon being Simon, of course, there was also the inevitable Ick Factor (A thought: Couldn’t Fox just make that a Saturday-night spinoff and stop killing the mothership’s good vibes?) Worst moment of the night, hands down, was Britney’s one-time duet partner Don Philip, slurring his way through Beyonce’s “Halo” like a boxer staggering toward the ropes notes, then later sobbing in a hallway that he’d “hurt Britney” by…not singing well? Forcing her to prove her judging cred by giving him a “no” to Boot Camp? Making people change the channel for her maiden X Factor voyage by serving up a steaming plate of uncomfortable? I’ll give Britney credit for letting her old pal down with a firm but kind assessment — “your voice isn’t up to the bar” of what the judges are looking for, she said, not dragging things out at all — and for acknowledging that the guy had clearly faced some adversity in the decade since she’d last seen him. But when the interminable segment finally cut to commercial, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was there any chance this dejected one-time pop hopeful might do actual harm to himself, or someone else, after he watches the X Factor season premiere? And that’s not the kind of question that makes for Feel-Good TV.

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Yikes. I just went off on a tangent, only to realize that much like X Factor itself, I’m not focusing this recap nearly enough on the talent. So without further ado, let’s rank the singers headed to Boot Camp:

6) Quatrele Da’an Smith: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” — He’s on the right track, baby, he was born this way. No, I don’t mean the right track to anything further than Day 1 of Boot Camp, but given his outré/deranged wedding garb, this love child of Madonna, Bobby Brown, and Dracula (according to Simon) kinda sorta did earn that ticket to the next round. I mean, at least he wasn’t boring, right?

5) Reed Deming: Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” — He’s not too young to be singing “Grenade” at this point in his life, you say? Okay, fine, but don’t complain to me when the Season 3 premiere includes a pregnant woman playing audio feedback from her ultrasound to convince the judges they need to keep aiming younger, younger, younger. (“Who else’s energy am I gonna siphon off to stop my hair from turning gray?” asked Simon)

4) Paige Thomas: Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down” — Her nerves kept her from achieving Jazzlyn Little levels of awesomeness, but if The X Factor is aiming to be more about overall package and less about mega vocals, this chica who scored Simon’s “commercial with a capital C” label might be an interesting one to follow.

3) Emblem3: an original track called “Sunset Boulevard” — I’m only keeping them out of second place because their unneccessary nastiness to the boy-band guy, and their carefully unshowered look. (No me gusta, even if you really are genuine Sk8er Bois.) (Also: Someone please slap me silly for using Avril Lavigne’s janky spelling of “skater boys.” Ooooh that felt better.)

2) Jillian Jensen: Jessie J’s “Who You Are” — Hey, if Simon’s man enough to admit teared up at Jillian’s tale of surviving teenage bullying — and the subsequent gut-spilling beauty she brought to “Who You Are” — then I’m not ashamed to say the producers successfully manipulated me to reach for the Kleenex during this performance, either. (Sniffle.)

1) Janell Garcia: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ “Paris (Ooh La La)” — Janell seemed as fresh-scrubbed and sweet as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood were for their Idol auditions, and yet once she took the stage, Janell also proved 50 times more dangerous. I need Janell to stop maniacally running her fingers through her hair — and let’s be honest, a punky short ‘do would do her a world of wonders — but otherwise she performed the bejeezus out of the night’s coolest song choice.

And now I turn things over to you! Did you see a potential winner in the Austin, TX-San Francisco-Providence, RI auditions? Were there any decisions by the judges you would’ve vetoed? Sound off in the comments!