The only thing more depressing than watching contestants get cut from "X Factor" auditions is watching them get through.
The show, which debuted Wednesday after years of plotting, is about money, not music. Specifically, it's about exploiting the financial straits of its frequently desperate contestants.
Almost every one of the successful performers on the first episode mentioned money as a motivation – and many truly seemed to need it, from a 42-year-old single mother who wants to send her son to school to a trash hauler and recovering drug addict trying to provide stability for his own boy.
Those two contestants in particular had so much talent that I wished they didn't have to cash it in on a show as tacky and mean-spirited as this one – basically a cruel knockoff of creator Simon Cowell's old show, "American Idol."
All the financially strapped singers reminded me of people who play the lottery because they see it – too often correctly – as their one shot at wealth.
But at least people playing the lottery don't have millions of viewers looking over their shoulders, as multimillionaires exploit their narratives on TV.
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"X Factor" follows a cash-obsessed values system in which getting a Pepsi commercial is seen as a musical accomplishment, rather than selling out. (One of the prizes – along with $5 million – is a spot in a Pepsi ad to air during the Super Bowl.)
It's disheartening to watch judges who seem interested in music mostly as a means of self-promotion (note Nicole Scherzinger's narcissism over her birthday) preside over the fates of struggling singers who display much more heart than they do.
Paula Abdul, as usual, contributes little. Show creator Simon Cowell remains a ruthless judge of talent – or to be more accurate, talent that will translate to the lowest common denominator. Scherzinger is pretty.
One of the panelists is rather likable – but she's unfortunately the one who gets booted, without explanation, midway through the first episode. Cheryl Cole, who seemed the most authentic panelist in the premiere, was unfortunately ejected under mysterious circumstances and replaced by Scherzinger. (There was speculation that producers believed Americans wouldn't like Cole's northern English accent, because apparently, well, we're dumb.)
The remaining judge, L.A. Reid, comes off like someone who had a soul once – and hopes to reclaim it, even from within a machine in which he's agreed to become another gear. But he's in no position to do good here.
Because even though "X Factor" will make one person's dreams come true, it will grind up and spit out countless other contestants.
They can't all become stars. But the judges shamelessly stoke the hopes of anyone with the slightest chance.
Cowell set the disingenuous tone with his remarks to a 13-year-old, Rachel Crow, who said she needed the $5 million because "my family has like no money." She said six members of her family lived in a two-bedroom house, and she needed her own bathroom.
"Get ready for a new bathroom," Cowell told her, after all four judges decided to let her advance past the first round. Never mind the entire season of competition ahead, before the lone winner is chosen.
Contestants with no chance were treated even more shabbily, including Dan, 70, and Venita, 83. The couple wanted to use the $5 million to travel in a motor home and perform at senior centers. Dan was so confused after their performance that he didn't understand they had failed even after all four judges said no.
Rather than breezing through their unsuccessful audition, the show sent cameras to the couple's home in Pahrump, Nev., even before they traveled to Los Angeles to perform – apparently just sensing that their unrealistic dream would make great TV.
Let me state this simply: Making fun of delusional old people is evil. It's especially cruel and craven when the people doing it are multimillionaires whose show would get plenty of viewers without such cheap and nasty amusements.
Far more evil would be any attempt to wring drama from the recovering addict's struggle to stay sober. Chris Rene's performance at the end of the episode – of an autobiographical song he wrote himself – was soulful enough to transcend the show.
Before passing him to the next round, Cowell made him promise not to use drugs or alcohol again. I don't want to be too cynical here, but I won't be incredibly surprised if "X Factor" spends an awful lot of time building up and exploiting the possibility of a relapse. (Just the kind of stress a guy needs when he has a young child and mere months of sobriety.)
Before Rene, the judges suffered a barrage of auditions so bad the performers had to be tormenting them on purpose.
They deserved it.