December 19, 2013 11:00pm PT by Jonathan Bernstein
'X Factor' Shocker: TV's Worst Singing Show Finds Its Best Winner (Opinion)
If one were to cobble together a list of pros and cons relating to the just-concluded third go-round of The X Factor, the latter column would cast a long, sad shadow. The chemistry between the judges, while a little less zombified minus the wordless, baffled presence of Britney Spears, still had the spontaneity of diners at a crowded restaurant forced to share a table with strangers. Then there remained the wildly over-styled and over-choreographed production numbers, the thunderous backing tracks, the repellent musical theme weeks, the massive disconnect between the caliber of the performers competing on the show and the torrents of praise lavished upon them.
It's no wonder the ratings plunged this year, hitting a mid-run low of 3.46 million and causing Fox COO Chase Carey to publicly label the series "a disappointment to date." Even the implacable Simon Cowell is showing signs of stress, making bullish announcements about a fourth season long before the network has made such a commitment and teasing a radical new approach, by which he means, if he gets a fourth shot, his producers will frantically scramble to come up with a bold new concept to make The X Factor different from all the other competing singing shows.
Except that it already has. There may be only a single entry in the X Factor plus column, but it’s a significant one. The show may lack viewers, charm, chemistry and anything approaching a sense of fun, but one look at its just-crowned winners inspires hope for the music-loving masses.
Alex & Sierra, a Mumford & Sons-era Sonny & Cher from Daytona Beach, seemed like gimmick casting at first: a lovey-dovey real-life couple who couldn’t keep their hands or their eyes off each other and whose voices entwined just as naturally and intimately as their fingers. Next to the hysterical, over-emoting moppets, flung-together robo-vocal bands and last-chance rockers thrust onto the show’s big shiny stage, Alex & Sierra existed in a different plane from everyone around them.
Then something magical happened midway through their run on the live shows. Where previously they’d been forced to coo their way through Cowell-mandated material, like One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” and “You’re The One That I Want” from Grease, suddenly they developed a spine and an identity. Their choice of song shifted toward Of Monsters and Men, Ed Sheeran and Sara Bareilles. You could see exactly what sort of records they could make. Unexciting records, but records that had a potentially big built-in audience.
They were also inviting in their mystery. It was easy to watch them and wonder what was really going on? Are they always that happy? Did Alex, who was clearly the Svengali of the two, enjoy the way his partner’s confidence blossomed during the series, ultimately winning her the lion’s share of praise from the judging table? Was he going to pop the question and make an honest woman of her on live TV? Like them or not, they brought their own world onstage with them.
Now compare Alex & Sierra to the champions crowned by the other two singing shows, the programs with double the viewers. Tessane Chin won The Voice this week. She’s a passionate, powerful, technically flawless singer with little discernible personality -- in other words, exactly what The Voice loves -- while a recent winner of American Idol was another technically flawless singer: Candice Glover. Who, you ask? Exactly.
Idol's season 11 Philip Phillips, fared better, but lest we forget that he came to the show as a cool, truculent music snob who openly looked down on the series, then proceeded to rearrange classic songs until they were unrecognizable and drag out Dave Matthews deep cuts. He also refused to exploit the kidney disease that saw him inches from death's door, probably to the consternation of producers.
Despite fanciful notions of a season-four reboot, Cowell and his team are never going to get the American X Factor right. They’re glued to the format’s success in other territories where it’s a camp circus aimed squarely at grandmas and over-stimulated tweens. But he should derive some small consolation -- beyond his many hundreds of millions of dollars -- that his show, whether it clings to life or dies with dignity, just produced a winning act that will easily outshine the competition.