X Factor 2016 is friendly, confident in itself, and shaping up to be a classic series

"It has great judges, a fantastic presenter, a tried-and-tested format… and a few more years left in it yet if it maintains this new attitude"

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Last year I wrote a cri de couer lamenting the constant tinkering that was happening to The X Factor. The judges were wrong, the hosts were wrong, the format was wrong… and it was getting more wrong every time Simon Cowell and pals tried to make it right. It felt at times like the X Factor itself was auditioning for a place in our living rooms more than the contestants it strives to elevate to stardom. 

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My head said it could be saved, but if the truth be told my heart felt that perhaps it was the beginning of the end of Simon Cowell’s sing-song-a-thon that has dominated ITV’s autumn schedule for over a decade. 

It will not be hard therefore for you to imagine just how happy I have been for the first two weekends of 2016 A.X. (after X Factor) because far from spluttering toward the wreckers’ yard like the worn out family saloon it had become, the X Factor has reinvented itself as the shiny new five door family-friendly SUV of Saturday nights.    

Yes, the obvious things have been returned to their rightful places – Dermot’s class act and Louis’ pantomime act are clear examples… this is an X Factor with a new life force, a new confidence and a swagger that was wholly missing from the 2015 series that constantly attempted to second guess what viewers wanted.

Only four shows in and this already feels like it has the makings of a vintage series. The judging panel is perfect, with Sharon, Louis and Nicole providing a pleasing ying to Simon Cowell’s yang.  And where there was a harshness and coldness to the judges last year, this is a warm and fuzzy X Factor. 

Nicole has clearly been positioned as the poster child for modern X Factor values – relatable and kind, warm and understanding… and someone who is genuinely very talented and deserves her place on the panel. It’s no coincidence that she seems to sing with aplomb in almost every audition to pre-empt and counter any possible detractors that might suggest she’s on the panel because of how she looks, rather than her musical abilities.

Sharon also seems softer, less antagonistic, more maternal and willing to see the best in the contestants. Of course she’s still there to wind up Simon, and to lead revolts against the head judge with Louis, but when she has done so in this series so far, it has seemed to be far better natured than we saw during her previous tenure.

And away from the personnel, the production has been polished and shined to give it a more wholesome feel. The intimate room auditions immediately bring you closer to the contestants, and in turn you care more about their plight despite only seeing them for a short time on screen. It’s a far cry from the baying crowds of the auditoriums, the boos, the hisses and the chanting. When the judges say “yes” (and they seem to say yes more this series than ever) there’s a sense of it being you, me, Simon, Nicole, Sharon and Louis giving the thumbs up – we don’t care what the stage managed ‘face-in-the-crowd at the 02’ would think… this is our show again.

Of course X Factor 2016 still has the crap singers, and seeing them perform will always be a component part of the auditions. However, whereas in the past it has felt at times like a parade of the mentally unstable being mocked by multi-millionaires, this year (so far at least) even the terminally terrible have received constructive criticism – and when Simon has tried to put people down, his three co-judges have been there to dilute his distain.

Now there’s a long way to go, and with the divisive and gladiatorial Six Chair Challenge ahead of us, there’s still a chance for things to get unpleasant – but for now it looks like X Factor has bounced back hard.

It has great judges, a fantastic presenter, a tried-and-tested format… and a few more years left in it yet if it maintains this new confident attitude. The producers need to hold their nerve and stick to what they do best – making a show that gives people what they want week in and week out.

It’s time to face the music (again).

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X Factor returns to ITV at 8pm on Saturday 10th September