IIt must hurt to be Simon Cowell in 2021. For two decades, Cowell has been the undisputed master of the vocal show, trampling the charts with his relentless barrage of powerful ballads and gory stories. But then The X Factor faded away and its place was taken by countless niche singing shows.
Want to watch famous people sing in elaborate costumes? There is the masked singer. Want to see the judges try to determine if people can sing, without actually hearing them sing? There is I Can Hear Your Voice. Want to watch the singers curl up backstage as their voices are implanted in heart-wrenching frog-style avatars? Go to the United States and watch Alter Ego. Or rather, no.
Which brings us to Walk the Line: Simon Cowell’s attempt to reassert himself on the genre he once dominated. How exactly does he plan to do this? By plugging The X Factor’s corpse into an electric current and making it jerk off for kicks, of course.
All the old tropes are present and correct. Is Walk the Line featured inside a shed-sized shiny floor studio? Yes. Is there an audience that shouts on command so effectively that it sometimes borders on North Korean propaganda? Yes. Does it take an hour of television and it feels like six? Yes. Does it consist of heaps and heaps of people dropping out wobbly amateur versions of songs you’ve never heard played in the supermarkets? For the most part, yes.
There is, however, a small difference that separates Walk the Line from The X Factor. This new show has no interest in letting any of these people establish a career. In each episode, five new singers appear and with each episode, four of them are forgotten. The fifth – the winner, if you will – is offered £ 10,000. They can either take it off and let off steam, or start the competition again the following night in the hopes of winning £ 500,000 at the end of the series. But, yeah, other than that, it’s The X Factor everywhere.
Not that Simon Cowell is nowhere to be seen. While this was set to be his big TV comeback, he recently decided to stay off-screen and give way to everyone’s favorite fun-loving sub-Cowell sponge Gary Barlow. Barlow now heads a jury made up of Craig David (aggressively anonymous), Dawn French (reliably adorable) and Alesha Dixon (hired because if she goes more than eight months without judging something on TV, her kidneys will explode).
You must be wondering if any of them knew what they were signing up for, because never have TV judges been so useless. All the hard work, all the real judgment, is done at the end of each episode by the studio audience, who votes for a winner on tablet computers. This means that the judges are really only there to supplement the running time with cliché sound bites. I haven’t seen their contracts so I can’t be sure, but I suspect the legal definition of their role here might be “toast”.
As for the competitors, they have all just been torn from the conveyor belt of the generic singing competition competitors. In the first episode a guy performed a commercial version of John Lewis from God Only Knows, a guy tried to squeeze as many foreign notes as possible into Purple Rain, a drag queens ensemble called Queenz sang a song with the word “Queen” in the title, and a woman did something so bland I couldn’t even describe it to you under hypnosis. They were, on the whole, the musical equivalent of pre-chewed food.
Last night’s episode was won by the fifth contestant, a woman from Bristol who sang a song she had written herself. At the climax, she decided to stay for the next night’s episode. I suspect that’s what will make the show captivating in the long run; because all the dramatic tension comes from wondering whether or not the singers will hold their nerve. But it’s redundant to me because, now that I’ve finished the episode I was contractually obligated to watch, I’m going to be spending the rest of my life pretending Walk the Line doesn’t exist. Call it personal care, if you will.