On the first episode of The X Factor: Celebrity, judges Louis Walsh, Nicole Scherzinger and Simon Cowell didn’t know who’d be auditioning in front of them until the contestants walked out on stage. In a delightfully bizarre turn of events, one of those hopefuls was the journalist Martin Bashir. As he appeared in front of them, Walsh, eyes wide with amazement as if seeing through to a fifth dimension, raised his microphone to his lips, and uttered: “That’s never Martin Bashir.”
In the two weeks that X Factor: Celebrity has been on air, it has delivered countless moments like this. While the show's structure hasn’t changed much, swapping regular contestants for celebs brings out the banal absurdity that is, by some stretch, its finest quality. It’s the best the show has been in ages.
The celebrity version of X Factor still has all the expected reality TV beats that the original helped to invent – VTs in which contestants open up about their insecurities in the competition; below-average performers giving the judges lip – but when they’re applied to famous people, their ridiculousness is heightened. So when Martin Bashir is sitting on a patch of grass telling four people who appeared on Love Island 2018 that he’s not feeling particularly confident about his upcoming performance – or indeed when someone called Jeremy best known for being on Holby City calls the judges’ critique of the Kylie Minogue piano cover he has sung alongside Brendan Cole off Strictly “unfair” – the surreal nature of the whole thing also elevates it. Suddenly, X Factor transforms from part of the Saturday night furniture into a more novel and slightly weirder proposition.
It’s good that X Factor changed it up. Audiences were growing tired with its predictable formula, and in 2018, ratings were at their worst ever. I’ve written before about how reality shows could save themselves from burnout by only airing once every two years, and while the decision to do a celebrity version of X Factor isn’t quite the same, it may mean that appetite for the regular series will develop when it airs again.
In the meantime, however, we’re presented with a brand new beast. X Factor: Celebrity sees the format shortened and tightened up, as the first two weeks fast-forward to Judges’ Houses, ridding the show of its cruellest stages (i.e. the arena auditions and the horror film otherwise known as the Six Chair Challenge). From Judges' Houses (after which only three acts ended up being eliminated), the contestants go straight to a slightly trimmed-down version of the live shows, until one is declared the champ.
While it’s unclear whether the acts are being paid to appear – they’re competing, after all, for a real record deal with Cowell’s label SyCo – the inherent silliness of the celebrity show gives it a lower-than-usual-stakes feeling (these competitors, after all, already have comfortable day jobs). Though a few seem to be taking it pretty seriously – the now-axed Hayley Hasslehoff, who was giving strong I’m Playing the Lead In the School Production and an Agent Might Be Coming vibes – in general, it’s a fairly jovial mood. Picture the scene: three shamefully good-looking rugby players (their band name? Try Star) cavort about on a stage in Simon Cowell's garden doing “No Diggity” while trying very hard to stop themselves from laughing. Nicole Scherzinger yells “THAT WAS SO HOT AND AWKWARD,” and Randy Jackson is just there, for some reason. Perfect light entertainment chaos.
What X Factor really needed was to loosen up, and this year’s iteration has given it a much-needed chance to laugh at itself, which it has taken. Someone giggling knowingly at Walsh telling a contestant “You look great” (his X Factor catchphrase, “You look like a popstar, you sound like a popstar” feels at this point like an ancient proverb) is left in the edit. The judges changed the show’s rules when announcing the acts that would go forward to the live shows because, well, they just wanted to. It all points to a “fuck it” attitude that bodes better than usual for the season ahead.
X Factor was at its height in the mid-2000s – admittedly an iconic period for British popular culture in general – when it embraced its own ridiculousness (see: Jedward), and the inbuilt corniness of its format (if one of your most enduring childhood memories isn't watching Cher Lloyd singing "Stay" by Shakespeare's Sister next to a shrivelled tree then we had very different upbringings.) Well-known acts who don’t necessarily have a huge amount riding on their failure or success in the competition, and who are willing to play along with X Factor’s eccentricity, are – over the samey, going-through-the-motions feel of the original annual show – the best bet for actual entertainment the Good Ship Cowell has made in years.