Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Judges, from left, L.A. Reid, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears and Simon Cowell attend The X Factor season two premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles.

The X Factor: Demi Lovato, Britney Spears still charming without Simon

The X Factor returned on Wednesday night with new judges Demi Lovato and Britney Spears, but Simon Cowell was absent from the X Factor judging panel for half the show. How did it go?

The third installment of The X Factor continued to entertain with its two new judges, Demi Lovato and Britney Spears who, along with L.A. Reid were forced to hold down the fort in Kansas City sans Simon Cowell. Apparently, when Mr. Cowell called in sick he also phoned in his own replacement in the form of Louis Walsh, an Irish Record Executive who gladly took the opportunity to sit on the panel for the day.

Things on the judging panel seemed to run relatively smoothly, even without the fearless leader. L.A. Reid, who has been all but non-existent on the show so far, seized the opportunity to step outside of SImon's shadow and take the lead on the panel. Britney proved that she was still a remarkably competent judge despite seeming completely uncomfortable in her own skin at times, and Demi Lovato continued to be her charming, effervescent self.

In fact, aside from a sad display of some truly horrific acting as they "spontaneously" planned something special for L.A.'s birthday (Demi suggested a cake while Britney decided to sing to L.A. in a forced and off-key impression of Marilyn Munroe) the two Disney Diva's proved they weren't one-week wonders by bringing great energy to the show again. Mickey would be proud.

In Kansas City, viewers met Rizzloe Jones who Britney compared to Vanilla Ice (yes, it was meant to be a compliment). Rizzloe surprised and impressed the judges with some pretty impressive, impromptu rapping skills and was given four nods of approval from the judges. Cece Frey, a rather abrasive young woman, quoted every socially awkward reality star who came before her when she declared, "I am not here to make friends." It was obvious that neither making friends nor a good first impression were strong suits for Cece; after a botched attempt at "Unchained Melody," Cece managed to make the most of Simon's absence by getting a second-chance to impress. This time, her rendition of Christina Aguilera's, "Ain't No Other Man," was well-received and she too, earned the praise of all four judges.

After Kansas City, The X Factor briefly returned to the infamous Cow Palace in San Francisco just to find Diamond White, a 13-year-old charmer with an endearing, if not cliche, hard-knocks-life story. Diamond gave a good rendition of, "It's a Man's World," though everyone who performs that song will forever fail to live up to the bar set by American Idol Season 11 contestant Joshua Ledet

Another hard-knocks-lifer with extraordinary talent was Jessica Espinoza who took great pains to be sure that everyone understood that she was from, not the North, West or East but South side of San Antonio, Texas, which apparently meant something to the locals who cheered her on enthusiastically. Jessica performed Pink's "Nobody Knows," with such amazing feeling, the judges were all riveted and Simon declared that he loved everything about her.

But Simon may need to be less demonstrative with his feelings now that the competition includes Panda, a larger-than-life woman whose crush on him prompted her to abandon her sickbed in the hospital just to perform for Simon . . . and oh yeah, for those three other judges, too. Under Panda's giggling exterior, lived a voice with unexpected soul to it. After her performance of Sam Cooke's, "Bring It On Home," Simon declared that she sounded like a legend. Unfortunately, she was not bringing herself on home after her audition, instead it was Panda express back to the hospital.  The soul-singer promises to be 100 percent before the X Factor boot camp. Something tells me wild horses couldn't keep her away.

Perhaps it was the strong talent, the Disney Magic, or the tight editing but this episode of The X Factor seemed even better than the two before it. It moved at a great pace and didn't waste time trying to convince viewers to like Britney. (Oddly, Britney herself seems to avoid wasting any time trying to make others like her, which may just be part of the enigma that is Miss Spears.) But even Britney's enigmatic self wasn't enough to earn The X Factor top billing in last week's duel for viewers. In fact, The X Factor came in last amongst the major networks competing talent shows, behind The Voice and America's Got Talent

With a 32 percent drop in viewers from its last season's premiere, it seems as though exchanging Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger for younger women hasn't provided Simon with the ratings boost he was seeking. 

Maybe next year he'll oust Demi and Britney and bring in Honey Boo Boo?

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