X Factor USA Thanksgiving Special: Nicole Sees The Light

Under the stewardship of Simon Cowell, and lacking the bizarre pantomime cast of it's British counterpart, X Factor USA was flying high. So how did it all go so wrong with their Thanksgiving installment?
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It's amazing how much can change in a fortnight. Two weeks ago, it seemed as though the UK's entertainment reserves had run dry, with the X-Factor showcasing about as much 'world class' talent as your average episode of Rentaghost. Meanwhile, Simon's experimental debut season of the show's US equivalent was laughing in our face with an endless parade of precociously capable singers.

By the time I got back from my holiday (lovely, thank you), the world of TV talent shows had rocked on its axis. Having purged itself of all the headline-grabbing novelty acts, X-Factor UK was finally starting to resemble a talent contest. On the other hand, X-Factor USA had devolved into a tedious blur of self-indulgent over-singing and too much talk of performers' "inner light". So let's see what delights our transatlantic cousins have in-store for us tonight.

Tonight's episode is the Thanksgiving special, so they're going to be dedicating their songs to someone who's made a difference in their lives. Sorry Brian Friedman, I don't expect you'll be getting too many shout-outs. Let's give a nice, warm who-are-you-again welcome to our affable, sorry, laughable host Steve Jones. He's the TV presenter equivalent of those books that IKEA use to dress their Ivar shelving units - handsomely bound but disappointingly empty inside. You know you're on a downward trajectory when you find yourself missing Dermot's agent-may-care insouciance.

Steve's eyebrows are dancing with delight at the news that two acts will be going home this week. He should be thanking his lucky stars that the audience don't get to cast votes for the presenter. Here come our judges, and we need to give a special shout-out to Paula's leathery chesticles, which seem to be acting independently of the rest of her torso. Perhaps sensing that his lunch was about to revisit him, the cameraman whip-cuts to Simon, who's also drawing attention to his fun-bags with a single finger. Now I can taste my lunch again.

Two weeks ago, it seemed as though the UK's entertainment reserves had run dry, with the X-Factor showcasing about as much 'world class' talent as your average episode of Rentaghost

Tonight's first performer is Rachel Crow, who sings like an angel but occasionally looks like a Chucky doll. It's hard to be cynical about a kid who was born addicted to crack, and it certainly shames the UK contestants' woeful sob-stories about asthmatic cats or a bad case of the sniffles. Rachel's singing a song that's "inspirational rather than sad", which is nice. Unfortunately, it's also shouty rather than tuneful. And I genuinely feel bad for a perky 13 year-old forced to dress like something you'd find on Susan Boyle's knick-knack shelf. In typically overblown style, Nicole's talking about her shining light, Paula's seeing angels on Earth, and Simon's got funny little dollar signs pencilled onto his eye-lids.

Marcus is a nice kid, and we get to hear about the sacrifices his Mum made to give her kids "positive energy". We get lots of digitally-aged black and white footage of Marcus growing up, which would be fine if it weren't for the fact that these scenes are supposed to represent the late nineties, rather than the Depression. He's sitting on a perspex staircase and singing an uncomfortably literal Boyz II Men song about his mum, who spends the entire song fanning herself with her hand. I'm not sure whether she's overwhelmed with emotion or just in danger of asphyxiating in the plumes of dry ice. They're really overdoing the fog machine - all that's missing is Jamie Lee Curtis and a hook-handed pirate. You'll notice I haven't mentioned the vocals - consider yourself lucky. Tellingly, the judges spend more time praising his mum's performance.

Steve's doing his best, announcing "we're LIVE in Los Angeles" only to be met with utter indifference. I'm sure that if the camera had stayed on him, we'd have seen an audience member lean in and say "Sorry, this seat's taken". Melanie's dedicating the song to God, who never let her down and is the only person who really listens to her. Fair point - I tuned out halfway through. If nothing else, the VT serves to demonstrate what an amazing job the stylists and make-up artists do on this show when it comes to the performances.

She's doing a great job with R Kelly's The World's Greatest. It takes an impressive set of pipes to avoid being drowned out by a twenty-strong gospel choir, but she manages it. Melanie spends the last third of the song staring at the roof, which means she's either connecting with her Lord or she's spotted a sniper in the rigging. Strangely, she has a little outburst after her song where her speaking accent suddenly changes into a kind of Virgin Island patois. None of the judges seem to notice, so we're all good.

Chris is up next, talking about his methamphetamine addiction, which ended up in a nasty car accident. After that, he cleaned up his act thanks to his counsellor, who gets a song dedicated to him. Everyone's very nice and thankful, but that might change when they hear his early-90s hip-hop version of Let It Be. Even Marky Mark's Funky Bunch would have given this a thumbs-down. Three of the judges are dancing, can you guess which one's sitting down? Honestly, that Paula's a miserable bitch. In the feedback, Paula talks about "why we fell in love with you in the first place", whereas Simon references "why we first liked you". And we wonder why Mezhgan Hussainy is no closer to getting him down the aisle.

Everyone's very nice and thankful, but that might change when they hear his early-90s hip-hop version of Let It Be. Even Marky Mark's Funky Bunch would have given this a thumbs-down.

Poor old Paula - she only has one act left. They may sound like someone's piss-poor attempt at creating a porn name, but Lakoda Rayne are actually pretty good. Imagine taking Wilson Phillips, and splitting the fat one in two, you'd have a good idea of what this photogenic foursome look and sound like. Correction - what they usually sound like. This is not a good week for them, particularly since they've been overwhelmed by a Taylor Swift song. Not that any of it matters, since the judges loved it, and Paula's weeping again.

Nicole is proud to introduce LeRoy Bell, the uncannily youthful 60 year-old. He may only look as though he's in his mid-thirties, but at least this is one contestant whose archive footage didn't need to be artificially aged. He's doing this for his mum who died a couple of years ago - it's very touching, until you remember that she was probably in her mid-eighties, in which case she had a good innings. He's wrapping his gravelly tones around Sarah McLachlan's Angel. Apart from Melanie, this is the only song that's been in tune all evening. He's even mastered the Westlife-style barstool key change maneuver: no doubt about it, the man's a pro. Here comes the choir again - might as well make use of them if you're paying for the whole hour. Paula's crying again, and I'm surprised that she's got any moisture left. If anyone else pushes her buttons she's going to need an IV drip. Steve's on hand to say "Amazing, it felt like you were singing it for yer Mam". Way to go Steve, demonstrating just how much attention you're paying to the show.

Next up it's time for Astro, the petulant little shithead who briefly refused to perform in the sing-off last week. There's no denying the kid has talent, since he writes most of his own raps. What's less convincing is the act of contrition he gives in his intro. He starts his song saying "What are you gonna do? I'm fifteen... I'm from Brooklyn". Well, that's alright then. The stage is mostly empty, but for a set of silvery steps. I'm really rooting for a guest appearance from Jo Frost - make the stroppy fucker sit on the naughty one for ten minutes until he's ready to apologise properly. Paula believes that Astro is "well on the way to being prolific", which suggests that she's using her only dictionary to prop up a wonky side table. She wants to be an 'Astro-Naut', which shouldn't be too much of a stretch for a space cadet.

Simon's nostrils are flared with delight as he introduces Drew, Carly Simon's fourteen year-old mini-me. She's dedicating her song to her best friend Shelby. Their mums reminisce about when they were "little girls", which must have been about six weeks ago. She's singing Skyscraper and it's a great showcase for her quirky vocals. We even get a close-up of Simon's now customary 'fuck me' face, which he does every time he hears something that sounds like the ker-ching of a cash-register. LA Reid complains that Drew isn't singing age-appropriate songs, which is odd since Skyscraper was first performed by Demi Lovato, who still can't drink legally in most US states.

Closing tonight's show is Josh, who's singing for his thirteen year-old daughter. He may have a face for radio, but he's got a great gravelly tone. If the music career doesn't work out, he'd make a great voice-over guy for movie trailers. Vertical light beams, grand piano and a storming version of the Stones' Wild Horses, result in an across-the-board standing ovation from the judges. Or maybe DVT was just setting in after two hours in those leather chairs. It was a great performance but Nicole's teary declaration that "your music will change the world" might be over egging it a touch.

Steve ends the proceedings by saying "On a personal note, it's been a special night." Someone give this man an Emmy. And a one-way ticket back to Wales.

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