Last night's "X Factor" was a two-and-a-half hour blast of flashing lights, thunderous music and spit-fire fast performances and eliminations. Was this "American Gladiator" we were watching? No, it was the first live show of creator Simon Cowell's British import, which made "American Idol" look like Disney by comparison with all of the barbs thrown at each other and instant, ruthless farewells that brought the crop of 17 contestants down to a final 12.
Like NBC's "The Voice," the four judges -- Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, LA Reid and Cowell -- each mentored over four groups -- Groups, Over 30, Boys and Girls, respectively -- cherry-picking songs, sketching out choreography and mentoring the hopeful contestants over the past two weeks. Most of the night was spent with the three judges teaming up against surlier-than-ever Cowell, whose snide remarks about their mentorship and song choices could be considered a ploy to boost ratings if his peers didn't look so genuinely pissed off (thanks, live television!). As increasingly stressed-out host Steve Jones declared, "And the Reid and Cowell rivalry begins." Pan to a stone-faced judges' table with Simon and Reid tersely anchoring both ends.
In the end, what matters not is the bickering between the judges but the performances, of course. And the pickings were fairly obvious by the end of each groups' performances. LA bid adieu to Michael Bublé impersonator Phillip Lomax, whose delivery of The Monkee's "I'm A Believer" failed to make a believer out of Simon, who opined, "It's like you're a race car driver, and LA put you through in a tractor. LA, on this guy, you one hundred percent failed." Other departed members include the sweet-but-sad Brewer Boys, Sgt Pepper-jacket-wearing Dexter Haygood (whose crazy rendition of Britney Spears and Katy Perry will forever burn through my mind) and girls Simone Battle and Tiah Tolliver.
As Dexter said, "I'm in a boggle Zone. I'm in a twenty-first century Twilight Zone." I have no idea what that means, but I'm inclined to agree.
The highlights? As LA pointed out, 52-year-old Stacy Francis didn't cry for once after performing "Teacher," which will serve her well when she records her upcoming album "Anthems of Struggle and Empowerment." Simon turned 13-year-old Rachel Crow into Janelle Monae by outfitting her in a suit and funky haircut. Lakoda Rayne finally saw past their diva differences and "gelled" together enough to give a spirited, southern-inspired performance of "Come On Eileen" that could give the Dixie Chicks a run for their money. But the real winners of the night were the ones who stripped out the production and distracting back up dancers for raw, simple performances.
WATCH: Josh Krajcik, "Forever Young"
Burrito-slinger Josh Krajcik was the first person of the night to make me wake up. His husky, rough voice rumbled as he powerfully belted out "Forever Young," causing LA to declare it "soul-stirring" and Simon to say it was the best performance of the evening.
WATCH: Drew Ryniewicz, "What A Feeling"
And the surprise winner of the night was Drew Ryniewicz, who redeemed a worrisome Simon Cowell with an emotional, nuanced, hair-raising performance of "What a Feeling" that proved she's more than just a Justin Bieber fan -- she has the potential to sing alongside her idol in the immediate future.
So! The final 12 are: Astro, Chris Rene, Marcus Canty, The Stereo Hogzz, inTensity, Lakoda Rayne, Leroy Bell, Stacy Francis, Josh Krajcik, Rachel Crow, Drew Ryniewicz, and Melanie Amaro. What do we think? Do we agree or disagree with the final crop of "X Factor" contestants? And what is going on with the judges? Is the bickering real or staged? And is it me, or does host Steve Jones just need to relax, or something?