SOUND OFF: THE X FACTOR 2.0, Now With Britney & GLEE's New NYC State Of Mind
This week saw the premieres of not one, but two of the biggest entertainment extravaganzas currently on show in the vast TV landscape, both on Fox - the season two debut of the reinvented reboot of the reality singing competition show THE X FACTOR (with Britney Spears and Demi Lovato as new judges), as well as the season four premiere of the returning, albeit re-jiggered, half-NYC-set GLEE (with a memorable Kate Hudson guest starring, and, also, Sarah Jessica Parker joining next week). While one entity may have been more successful than the other in pulling off its grand switcheroo (especially insofar as overall transitional smoothness, THE X FACTOR really seems to be finding its voice, pardon the puns), the sheer enjoyment levels achieved by each was enough to make both recommendable and worthy of review given their intrinsic ties to the performing arts realm and their exploration, exhibition and employment of the titular x factor in the participants (abundantly). Individuals with that oh-so-unmistakable allure were on ample display both on THE X FACTOR and GLEE, making both properties looking likely to be once again worth revisiting each week this season, like last year - look no further than jaw-dropping X FACTOR audition of Carly Rose Sonenclar for clear-cut proof of that must-see-TV-worthiness of the new Fox Thursday night slate. Wowzer! Plus, next week, THE X FACTOR and GLEE shall share a similar theme when GLEE gets 1,2,3 (or, more to the point: 5,6,7,8) with a second Britney Spears tribute, "Britney 2.0".
A Little Change Of Pace Done Big
"And if you're not suffering from severe body dysmorphia, you don't want it enough!", or, so sayeth Cassandra July (Kate Hudson). And so goes the bitchy, bile-brewing dance instructor at NYADA - the fictional New York Academy Of Dramatic Arts on GLEE - who is half Madonna on a really bad day working her dancers overtime and the other half a pseudo Helen Lawson from VALLEY OF THE DOLLS; brimming with nefarious brio and itching to employ her arsenal of backstabbing methods on all-too-eager NYADA newcomer Rachel Berry (Lea Michele). The split-concept format of the new GLEE 4.0 certainly did not come off without a hitch or five, and, expectedly, the NYC-set scenes possesses a much different, more adult vibe (with pronounced green and orange hues evoking the color scheme of Ryan Murphy's highly visually stylized nighttime soap NIP/TUCK, as a matter of fact), while it is more of the same back at McKinley High in Lima, Ohio, for the most part. It would be a vast understatement to say that most of the new members of the GLEE club have failed to make quite as strong an impression as the original crew - especially those coming from the casting show, THE GLEE PROJECT - though each unquestionably more than merely delivered in their musical performances. That being said, Vanessa Lengies as Sugar Motta may be the sole exception to that rule as far as discussion of the reality casting on the series itself is concerned - she, along with second-season addition Darren Criss and Chord Overstreet (neither cast through the reality show) are exceptionally integral parts of the GLEE club, without any doubt. Yet, it's a generally a treacherously dicey proposition to cast non-actors and reality show winners in major roles on a network TV show - even a performance-based series like GLEE - and it really remains to be seen if any of the winners or runners-up of THE GLEE PROJECT will ever feel an intrinsic part of the core cast of GLEE as it now stands; at this point, none of them do and the showings have been middling thus far in respect to additions new and old for the most part. A gaping hole unavoidably exists where the original glee clubbers once stood and the absence of Cory Monteith, Dianna Agron, Amber Riley, Mark Salling and Harry Shum, Jr. (all confirmed to be appearing in some unforeseen capacity down the line) was pronounced and oftentimes pummeling to the way the otherwise well-structured plot came off and the way in which "The New Rachel" worked (or did not); an episode penned by GLEE mastermind Ryan Murphy and directed by co-creator Brad Falchuk. Perhaps it will take a few weeks for the new flow of the show to really set in and for us to become acclimated to the new GLEE 4.0.
The musical numbers were appreciably stylish and well sung, if, to be completely and profoundly picky - and as has also been the case with the series for the last two seasons - the song choices themselves were a bit frustratingly contemporary; particularly since the episode itself expounded upon Rachel's new New York City journey, it seems strange for there to be no musical theatre material, although the Broadway babies out there in the dark were thrown a figurative bone with the WICKED references and the fleeting Streisand homage by way of a Billy Joel barn-burner. Above everyone and everything else, new and old, Kate Hudson stole the whole show - on full, flashy, foxy, eyebrow-raising display with her sizzling mash-up of Lady Gaga's "Americano" and Jennifer Lopez's "Dance Again", giving us a gamine glimpse of a mildly (and inappropriately, given her position) tipsy Cassandra letting off steam and giving it off simultaneously as that fiery, unhinged and unpredictable siren of a teacher she perfectly plays to a T. Whoopi Goldberg returned as Carmen Tibideaux, the preeminent instructor at NYADA, and she provided the dignifiEd Grace we have come to expect from her portrayal of the memorable role, carrying over the character from last season. Next week, yet another major addition to the NYC storyline will be revealed: Sarah Jessica Parker as the fashion editor with whom a NYC-bount Kurt (Chris Colfer) interns in his first job in the big city. Stealing focus from the glee club (though one could justifiably make the argument that the journey begun in glee club continues on into the real world, as it actually is with Rachel, Kurt and some of the others), the NYC storyline seems a bit of a far cry from the world of Lima, Ohio and the bristling, jarring nature of the two styles combustibly converging was seemingly intentional by the creators - and, through the interweaving of "New York State Of Mind" was thoughtfully rendered, one can't help but wish we could hear each of the show-stopping ladies in their own solo takes on the big ballad that was once given great gravitas by Barbra. The split-focus nature of GLEE 4.0 at this point is a bit more King Solomon syndrome versus having your cake and eating it, too.
Of the modern musical material, the pop song of the summer, Carly Rae Jepsen's addictive earworm "Call Me Maybe" was given due diligence in the befittingly frivolous five-way frolic by Unique (Alex Newell), Blaine (Darren Criss), Brittany (Heather Morris), Artie (Kevin McHale) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz). New Directions also infused Adele's international smash hit "Chasing Pavements" with emotion, though a pronounced presence of Michele on the track (however justified dramatically) would have probably made it an instant classic in the gleek-iverse - the fact is, her voice is ideal for Adele. A throwback jam recently revisited in ROCK OF AGES onscreen, REO Speedwagon's 80s head-banger "Sister Christian", was tantalizingly offered in brief by new NYC story cast-member Brody Weston (Dean Geyer), and, in so doing, immediately established himself as the new heartthrob of GLEE - while evoking Finn's first song moment at the same time given the song's aquatic surroundings. Even devout fans may very well be asking "Finn who?" if Monteith remains off-screen for long with Geyer around. Satisfactorily matching the strong male student addition, Melissa Benoist as Marley Rose made a strong impression in her songs and in the emotional lunchroom-set moments with her mom, as well - though her voice is simply no match for Michele's as far as power and Broadway razzmatazz goes (although, few are) if they intend to indeed portray her as the new leader. While some moments rang false in the Lima storyline (Sue's pregnancy/birth seems a dead-end plot-wise and a waste of Jane Lynch and Schu's shoved-to-the-background focus is a shame and a misuse of all Matthew Morrison can do), overall Marley seems a compelling character who may very well win over many more fans now that Benoist has made it to the main-stage GLEE, though the success of the others frankly (and even glaringly) remains to be seen. "Never Say Never" by The Fray was also partially rendered in a clipped iteration and Jacob Artist seems as though he will be a welcome addition to the GLEE universe as Noah Puckerman's younger brother, Jake, in any event. Unique as played by gender-bending Alex Newell, too, fits right in, more or less - moreso than the bizarre and slightly creepy Kurt-is-still-hanging-out-at-high-school story did, at least (though it more than justified an agreeable, lilting farewell cover of the current Imagine Dragons hit "It's Time" by a spirited and jumpin'-jack-ed Blaine). Also, now that Kurt is in NYC with Rachel, all the pieces will assumedly fall into place for them anyway - hopefully. As for McKinley? We will have to stay tuned to see if New Directions can survive the transition - and, as has been heavily reported, all past gleaks will be coming back one way or another over the next several weeks and months so there is a lot too look forward to coming up.
While GLEE gave us many new questions and some satisfying solutions while making a bit of a mish-mash of it all, THE X FACTOR presented itself as the international talent machine it has become worldwide despite the fact that it did not totally connect with American audiences in quite the same way in its inaugural season (especially not as compared to the gargantuan success of AMERICAN IDOL stateside). While season one was every single bit AMERICAN IDOL: THE MOVIE, the second season of the show is as much of a change of pace as that on GLEE, though with far fewer bumps and visible bruises incurred along the way - and that's thanks to Britney Spears. Rarely in reality TV competition has a new judge really fallen into the fold as easily and seamlessly as Spears, but she radiates both show business success and the hallowed, deified allure only a handful of pop stars have ever possessed. Like it or not, Britney Spears is a major fixture in the firmament of recent pop music history and the fact that she works as well as she does in this capacity as a judge shows we may have not seen all of the talents Spears conceivably has to offer us in the future, near and far. As for the other three judges, L.A. Reid continues to illustrate how he has had such a significant place in modern music and how the next Justin Bieber or Usher is only an audition away with his sterling resume to back them up. Simon Cowell remains the king of this format of reality TV - no one has been or ever will be better than him. Demi Lovato no doubt brings in the youth audience more than any of the other three judges, though her palpable rapport with her fellow arbiters and general jovial demeanor adds just the right element of youthful vigor and edge to the auditioning affairs. And, as far as the style of the show this season goes? THE X FACTOR continues to be the gold standard of how to present a reality singing competition and reality show simultaneously with polish and precision - as staged as some moments surely are, the entire package just shimmers.
Additionally, the use of 2:20:1 widescreen was an inspired, effective choice for the first segments and the possibilities afforded by that filming format for capturing onstage action cannot be underestimated - look no further than the peerless film preservation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's LOVE NEVER DIES on Blu-ray (as captured onstage in Australia) for further eye-opening, vista-expanding evidence. As for the talent on the first two episodes of THE X FACTOR auditions? Simon Cowell is the prime procurer of many of the most important and influential musical groups of all time - The Spice Girls and One Direction, most notably - so all eyes are now on him to bring to fame a star (or stars) on the heavenly high level of his past discoveries. We will have to wait and see what this judging panel comes up with in the coming weeks and months as far as potential winners go, but the first three hours of THE X FACTOR auditions show that there is one and only one reality singing competition worth watching on TV - and, furthermore, that show has just found a new queen to stand alongside King Simon.
It's Britney, bitches. Bow.
More On: Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Carly Rose Sonenclar, Lea Michele, Ryan Murphy, Vanessa Lengies.