IIt must hurt to be Simon Cowell in 2021. For two decades, Cowell has been the undisputed master of the singing talent show, stomping the pulp charts with his relentless barrage of power ballads and gory stories. But then The X Factor disappeared and its place was taken by endless niche singing shows.
Want to see famous people sing in elaborate costumes? There is the masked singer. Want to watch judges try to determine if people can sing, without actually hearing them sing? There is I can hear your voice. Want to see singers cower backstage as their voices are implanted in harrowing, frog-style avatars? Go to the United States and watch Alter Ego. Or rather, don’t.
Which brings us to walk the line: Simon Cowell’s attempt to reassert himself on the genre he once dominated. How does he plan to do this exactly? By plugging The X Factor’s corpse into an electric current and shaking it for kicks, of course.
All the old tropes are present and correct. Is Walk the Line presented in a shiny floor studio the size of a hangar? Yes. Is there an audience that shouts so effectively on command that it sometimes borders on North Korean-style propaganda? Yes. Does it take an hour of television and it feels like six? Yes. Does it consist of lots and lots of people dropping rickety amateur versions of songs you’ve only ever heard played in 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 in each episode, four of them fall into oblivion. The fifth – the winner, if you will – is offered £10,000. They can either take it off and walk away or compete again the following night in the hope 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 visible everywhere. While it was supposed to be his big TV comeback, he recently decided to stay off-screen and make way for everyone’s favorite fun-loving sponge, Gary Barlow. Barlow now leads a jury of Craig David (aggressive anonymous), Dawn French (very beautiful) and Alesha Dixon (hired because if she goes more than eight months without judging anything on TV, her kidneys will explode).
You have to wonder if any of them knew what they were signing up for, because never have TV judges been so useless. All of the hard work, all of the actual judging, is done at the end of each episode by the studio audience, who vote for a winner on electronic tablets. This means that the judges are really only there to round off the running time with cliched 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 ‘rusk’.
As for the candidates, they have all just been snatched from the generic conveyor belt of candidates for the singing competition. In the first episode, a guy performed a commercial version of John Lewis from God Only Knows, a guy tried to put as many superfluous notes in Purple Rain as he could, a group of drag queens 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, basically, 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 engrossing in the long run; because all the dramatic tension comes from wondering whether or not the singers will keep their cool. But that’s redundant to me because now that I’ve finished the episode I was contractually obligated to watch, I’m going to spend the rest of my life pretending Walk the Line doesn’t exist. Call it self-care, if you will.