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Paula Abdul looks for a questioner during the panel discussion about Fox's The X Factor Friday at the Television Critics Association press tour.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
It is now Day 10 of panel discussions at the Television Critics Association press tour. It is already a time when nerves are frayed, there's too much coffee in everyone's veins, and the fact that we can't get Diet Coke because Fox has a deal with Pepsi begins to take on the psychological dimensions of an actual problem, which it is not. We're starting to ask weird questions like "When did you first know you were adorable?" (which someone asked of Zooey Deschanel at the panel about her fall show, The New Girl).
It was into this environment that Fox brought the judges and producers of The X Factor, the upcoming talent competition show to which Simon Cowell has taken his bristly haircut and plunging V-necks, bringing with him legendarily loopy former Idol-mate Paula Abdul — and former Pussycat Doll-slash-Dancing With The Stars champion Nicole Scherzinger, along with superstar producer L.A. Reid — to be the judges.
Cowell appeared via satellite, sitting by a window in a secret location that looked like the kind of idyllic beach house where people go to die in tear-jerking movies. He opened by noting that his audio must not be working, because after he was introduced, he didn't hear applause! Ha ha!
(Ms. Deschanel would recommend a polka-dot dress next time.)
He talked for a while about whether he thought the new show would outperform American Idol (yes), whether he thought it would bring something different (yes), and whether he was worried about all the other talent competition shows out there (no). Terribly surprising, those answers.
Then they brought out the rest of the panel: Abdul, Scherzinger, Reid, producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz (the best name that has appeared in the credits of an American television show, maybe ever), plus Fox's uber-reality-master Mike Darnell, executive producers Andrew Llinares and Rob Wade, and host Steve Jones — who came off like a younger Welsh version of Modern Family's Phil Dunphy, just on the basis of try-hard eagerness in the pursuit of a hollow laugh he will determinedly not recognize as such.
(Mr. Jones, you are no Ryan Seacrest! And you can tell Ryan Seacrest I said so, if you can catch him between jobs!)
At first, Paula Abdul seemed more composed than usual. She was seemingly being funny on purpose when she talked about how nice it was to be back in a "demented relationship" with Simon. And when someone else compared the two of them to an "old married couple," Cowell shot back that it's "more like The Exorcist 2." This is their shtick, comfortable as an old sweater (albeit one that you can sometimes wear when it hasn't been knitted yet). Second verse, same as the first, good for ratings and a little bit worse.
But soon enough, things began to get strange. For one thing, they announced that the winner of the show would be guaranteed five million dollars in cash as part of their contract. That's right. Five million dollars. Reid was first saying they didn't quite know how it would work, and recording costs might come out of that number, but Cowell cut him off to say no — it was guaranteed to be five million in cash.
Let's put that in context: a contract worth $5 million to somebody who, by loose Idol analogy, might turn out to be Kelly Clarkson. Or who might turn out — not to beat a dead harmonica — to be Taylor Hicks.
When Scherzinger started talking, she seemed a world away from the high-energy go-getter she looked like on both Dancing and the a cappella competition The Sing-Off she's judged twice for NBC. It was very... well, the nice word for it might be "Zen."
The less charitable word was "sleepy." Very, very sleepy. For one thing, we were told that she "cries a lot" on the show, which doesn't seem like it's exactly what was needed on a show that already has the smooshy-hearted Paula Abdul in the group. In fact, Scherzinger told us that after she found out she was being placed on the panel, she "cried for days." This could very easily turn out to be a show with more crying than the parts of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition where they give away the product-placed appliances.
(That's if you don't count the singers themselves as product-placed appliances. Hiyo!)
Shortly thereafter, seemingly after being prompted by Reid, Abdul made some kind of a comment — in jest, obviously, but sort of out of nowhere — about how hanging around with Cowell had given her "brain damage." But then she clarified that they both had brain damage. Equal brain damage for everyone! (That wasn't in the press materials.)
It got weird, and it stayed weird.
Asked how she's different on this show than she was on American Idol, Abdul said, among other things, "I sit differently."
At some point, Cowell just vanished from the satellite screen. And then later, he came back.
Abdul said at one point that Cowell had turned into "a pussycat." Was she joking? I ... think so?
Cowell tried to draw Scherzinger into some banter about how ruthless she is, but she seemed disinclined to respond.
And at one point, while Scherzinger was answering a question, Abdul burst into apparently unmotivated giggling that she could not suppress.
The panel, in the end, was so bizarre that later, one critic even asked Fox entertainment president Kevin O'Reilly how he thought it went.
"I loved it," Reilly said.
And I believe him.