THE SHOW "The X Factor"

WHEN | WHERE Tonight at 8 on Fox/5

REASON TO WATCH The return of Simon Cowell.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A talent contest, open to ages 12 and over, with four judges -- Cowell, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, and L.A. Reid -- as gatekeepers. The winner -- who could be an individual or group -- gets a $5-million record contract. Auditions begin with tonight's episode.

MY SAY "The X Factor" is many things, all of them utterly, almost laughably familiar. The contestants' lives are like a sad, sad song, but they have the voices of angels. The pounding, head-thumping audio tracks that can turn the most mundane stroll onto the stage seem like Rocky's ascending the museum steps. The tears that become rivers of mascara down the flawless faces of a couple of judges who say stuff like, "You are why I got into this business" or "You have a gift that is not to be wasted."

And yet, it works. "The X Factor" is a hugely entertaining endeavor full of malarkey, good performances (and bad), and enough momentum to keep you engaged from the first overblown second to the last. This is, naturally, another way of saying that "The X Factor" is so slick and glossy you'll almost be able to see your reflection in the TV screen, which tends to rob it of serendipity, or a sense that anyone -- like you -- could actually win.

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There are a couple of immediate perils for Cowell and Fox, notably that "X" is strikingly familiar to "America's Got Talent" -- the last link on earth the network wants. "Idol," the be-all-end-all of TV talent competition, is the other. Differences between both are dramatic and not necessarily for the better. For example, judges on "AI" are an integral part of the process, but in the early stages here, they are mostly window dressing. No counsel is proffered, not once does Simon dismiss a would-be Justin Timberlake with "that was utter rubbish . . . pure karaoke." As a viewer, you feel like you're coming in at the end of the process, not the beginning.

BOTTOM LINE Entertaining and manipulative.

GRADE B