One competition series ends on Wednesday night and another one begins. Both are dominated by British egos. One's a winner and the other is probably looking at failure. I'm talking Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell here.
The X Factor (Fox, CTV Two, 8 p.m.) starts its third season, getting a jump on the official opening of the new TV season by a couple of weeks. That's probably a good idea.
The series, an international franchise, has never clicked with viewers in North America and now stands as an example of the bloated excesses of network TV. It's an enormous, expensive venture, this thing. For all the blather about reality TV being cheaper to make than dramas and comedies, The X Factor exists as a rebuke to that.
When announcing that he was leaving American Idol a few years ago, Cowell promoted The X Factor as a colossal, more exciting version of Idol. A massive touring production, auditions in giant venues with an audience, and much footage of backstage tears, fears and meltdowns. There would be competition between the judges, too, as they mentored participants and had a stake in the outcome.
This proved to be a middling success in its first season. Nothing caught fire, though. The singers were nice, bland performers and nobody emerged as a star. To draw attention to the second season and give it a boost, Britney Spears was brought in as a judge, at enormous expense. She was paid about $15-million (U.S.) and you can make a lot of TV drama for that sum. Spears failed to fire up the show.
Now, The X Factor (this year with judges Demi Lovato, Paulina Rubio and Kelly Rowland along with Cowell) has reached a point where it is more interesting to read about the economics of the show than to watch it. The two main sponsors for the first two seasons, Pepsi (which invested $60-million) and General Motors, have pulled out. They are replaced by Honda and Procter & Gamble. Honda will use the series to launch its 2014 Odyssey and Procter & Gamble will be promoting its Cover Girl cosmetics, Herbal Essences hair care and Secret deodorant products.
One can speculate that the loss of Pepsi was a huge blow. The Pepsi logo was seen in almost every scene of The X Factor. And, well, Honda isn't GM, is it? At both corporations, somebody decided that The X Factor is a crock, and rightly so. What viewers will see on Wednesday is scenes from auditions in a handful of U.S. cities. There's a cute young guy named Carlito, who is as charming as he is unimaginative as a singer. Then there's the inevitable train wreck – a 55-year-old bubbly woman named Sally who declares that she can "win this thing" and then proceeds to show that she can't sing a note.
The predictability is stunning. And one can't help but conclude that it is Simon Cowell's ego that is keeping this show going to its looming cancellation.
MasterChef (Fox, CTV, 9 p.m.) reaches its season finale on Wednesday night. It has been a strong season and part of the reason is the two final competitors – Natasha Crnjac, a 26-year-old, stay-at-home mother from San Diego, and Luca Manfe, a 31-year-old restaurant manager from Astoria, N.Y. The series, as it evolves each season, becomes as much about personalities as about cooking.
For all the fuss that judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot make about specific dishes, a vital element is the attitude and demeanour of the contestants. On that score, Luca Manfe has the advantage. An amiable man, he's a natural cook who is more interested in concocting fine food than playing wicked games with the others. Natasha Crnjac is a wizard in the kitchen, undaunted by the most complex of dishes and, as regular viewers will know, does it all while wearing stiletto heels.
Missing from the finale is one of recent reality TV's most compelling figures. That's Krissi Biasiello, who lasted until the second-last episode. Loud and often angry, Krissi emphasized her working-class background and cooked with enormous skill. In the end, though, her inability to get along with others proved a disaster.
MasterChef, like The X Factor, is about amateurs getting a chance to shine and find fame. The key difference is that Gordon Ramsay has kept it simple and, although he inserts himself and his personality, it's never about his ego.