"X Factor" judges Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger may have sealed their fates when they let a 13-year-old go home bawling.
The dismissal of that 13-year-old, Rachel Crow, represented everything that was wrong with the first season of "X Factor": It was jumbled and confusing, with too much happening at once. It didn't break new ground. And worst of all, it sometimes just felt mean-spirited.
Scherzinger was widely criticized for voting to send Crow home -- on advice from Abdul -- so that the judges' panel would deadlock between Crow and fellow contestant Marcus Canty. The deadlock meant the decision came down to which competitor had more viewer votes. Host Steve Jones almost mechanically announced that Crow would exit, and turned to shake Canty's hand, apparently not noticing Crow, beside him, falling to her knees in tears.
It was Simon Cowell who rushed to the stage to embrace her -- not Abdul and Scherzinger, who orchestrated her exit, and not Jones, who announced it.
When Simon Cowell is the most empathetic person around, something's wrong with your show.
Word late Monday that Abdul, Scherzinger and Jones are out for the second season of "X Factor" amounts to an admission by Cowell that the show he created hasn't lived up to his lofty expectations.
He said before "X Factor" aired that he wanted it to top his former show, "American Idol," as the biggest on television. But it has scored less than half the ratings of "Idol." Its closer rival is NBC's upstart singing competition "The Voice," which slipped onto the airwaves and became a hit during the endless and much-hyped run-up to the "X Factor" premiere.
Cowell has long dreamed of including Mariah Carey on "X Factor," if not as a judge than as a performer or mentor. Her pregnancy made that impossible once; later, Cowell said, plans for Carey to appear were undone by Hurricane Irene.
Now, nothing would seem to stand in the way of Carey sweeping in -- except, perhaps, for fear that she can't bring the show up to Cowell's rigorous standards. Cowell's hope at this point must be that the flaws in "X Factor" are cosmetic enough that new casting can improve it.
But the flaws may go deeper. From the beginning, the show has tried to gin up confict under the simple theory that conflict equals drama. It does, but not all drama is pleasant to watch.
At their best, "Idol" and "The Voice" temper their mini-controversies with redeeming moments. The good guys win and no one falls down crying -- except tears of joy.
But "X Factor" feels at times like a mass-marketing machine, fueled by its prominent corporate sponsors, that can't slow down for a few seconds of genuine human emotion.
Even Scherzinger seemed overwhelmed by the process as she refused to choose between Canty and Crow. Jones, who often seemed more focused on delivering his lines than making genuine connections, only added to the emotional disconnect. Abdul, the old hand, gave Scherzinger an easy out by advising her to send the decision to the viewers.
It was the coldness of the dismissal that made it so uncomfortable, as if a little girl's dreams were just a casualty of something bigger. A better judge could have humanized the moment, promised Crow that better things lay ahead. Instead, she got the paralyzed, inexperienced Scherzinger and the cool Abdul, who advised her fellow judge to pass the buck.
Cowell's next judge, or judges, may be gifted enough to humanize his show. But that's a lot to ask of one or two panelists. The show should also back away from its many cynical elements, like playing up the dire financial straits of its contestants, and suggesting to viewers that one contestant exposed himself, when he actually didn't.
What "X Factor" badly needs is more compassion -- or at least a better show of it.
Watch Rachel Crow's horrible exit: