Don Philip was nervous. Close to terrified, in fact.
Ten years ago, he'd actually performed a duet with much-hyped new "X-Factor" judge Britney Spears. Now here he was on Simon Cowell's apres-"Idol" Fox show to see her again and to sing for her.
Implicit in his nervousness was a very hard decade since they last met. No details were provided, but anyone with even minimal experience of the human species could take one look at the fellow and sense a very tough road indeed behind him.
So he sang for his old partner on the new show as she sat between fellow "X-Factor" newbie Demi Lovato and the show's experienced judge, record producer L.A. Reid. Cowell, of course, occupied the corner chair on stage left, so he could bat clean-up.
The expression on Spears' face said it all while he sang. With startlingly little glamorizing, she looked as if she were undergoing a very uncomfortable and personal medical procedure. "You're voice isn't really up to the bar of the standards of 'The X-Factor' and what we want," she told him.
Someone should engrave the phrase "up to the bar of the standards of 'X-Factor'?" on a marble wall somewhere. In the meantime, you'd have to be made of brick not to know a real TV moment when you saw one: pure Parmesan as real moments go, but real nevertheless.
Earlier, Spears compared a contestant to "Alvin and the Chipmunks."
The final "X-Factor" contestant was Jillian Jensen, a self-professed bullying victim with a "Stay Strong" tattoo we'll have to take on faith. Judge Lovato - a hyped anti-bullying activist with a "Stay Strong" message - was ready to kvell.
There was nothing remotely prepossessing about Jensen's appearance. She was pretty but dressed in shorts that accentuated her chunkiness. When she lifted her arms or spread them wide while singing, you could see plainly that she hadn't yet learned the more advanced refinements of underarm grooming.
She sang Jessie J's "Who You Are." Her voice was tough and scratchy - and not in a Kim Carnes way, either. But she poured her heart into it.
Lovato was in tears at the end. Even Simon Cowell theatrically copped to a little glisten at the corner of his eye.
This season's "X-Factor," for anyone who didn't somehow know, is proof that reality TV has got it going on these days.
Some of the more ancient TV forms - sitcoms, for instance - may have hit a monstrously synthetic demographic stage where all the gagwriting talent in the world (formidable on, say, "The New Normal") is more likely to make you gag than want to watch again. Unless you're there for the pedagogic instruction on 21st century art of tolerance - and to enjoy mockery of intolerance and sex roles no one believes anymore, anyway - there's nothing to watch on the New Season's sitcoms. To me, they're unwatchable, wall to wall - blatant pleas to this demographic or that to score ratings numbers that advertisers like.
NBC, for one network, has invested enormously in new sitcoms to get itself back into business, but whatever success it has, I wasn't among the converts after seeing previews.
Give me, instead, at least a little bit of reality TV at its best, which is really no more "real" than a sitcom but is far more cannily put together, for all their sharp writing skill in occasional evidence. ("The New Normal" even tries to get away with a running "Grey Gardens" joke - a reference to a 1975 Maysles brothers film and HBO adaptation only one in every 100 people are likely to understand.)
Reality TV is so fat and sassy that two of its hits - "Dancing With the Stars" and "Survivor" - will return this fall with some favorite alumni contestants, just as "Big Brother" has done this summer. If you've got a Bristol Palin or a Kirstie Alley in house, you flaunt their significant imperfections for all they're worth.
So here, then, is a very selective and highly personal Fall Season preview, including a look at some shows I've been able to steal time to see in between other responsibilities:
The Triumph of Digital Cable and Other Advanced Forms of Television: The only way smart TV watchers will be able to survive the evening of Sept. 30 with all of its offerings sampled will be by using a pay TV service of some sort that offers "On Demand" programming. In other words, a mere DVR won't do it. Here's what will be offered on that Sunday: a monster "appointment television" pair of new season premieres on Showtime - "Dexter" and "Homeland" (the latter, many people's idea of TV's current best); season premieres of CBS' "The Good Wife" and "The Mentalist," ABC's "Revenge" and new "Rosemary's Baby" wannabe "666 Park Avenue"; not to mention HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and "Treme," which will both be in full swing by then, and NBC's "Sunday Night Football."
A true embarrassment of TV riches.
The Coolest Idea of the New TV Season: CBS's "Elementary" in a walk (premieres Sept. 27). I've seen the pilot episode, and it's about as seductive as ordinary network prime-time TV gets - an update of Sherlock Holmes with Jonny Lee Miller as ratiocinating prodigy Holmes and Lucy Liu, of all people, as a mordant and skeptical version of Holmes' partner and chronicler Watson.
Now that's clever - so much more so, in fact, than the loud, expensive, steampunk action movie Sherlocks that cost and make zillions with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law that it almost says embarrassing things about the amount of creativity Hollywood now routinely allows TV and movies.
This Sherlock can tell just by the tilt of a floor if there's a hidden panic room in a ritzy apartment. At the same time, he's happy to borrow Watson's car impulsively and T-bone the car of an escaping miscreant. The Miller/Liu chemistry is droll, very droll.
No one will ever - ever - top of the chemistry of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (my all-time favorite second banana in movie history), but so much casual creativity went into the creation of "Elementary" that it's an authentic network wonderment.
Runners-up: ABC's "The Last Resort," NBC's "Revolution," Fox's "The Mob Doctor" (with, are you ready, William Forsythe and Zeljko Ivanek, two of the reigning Hollywood character actors). Maybe "Arrow," too.
Most Predictable Solid Pleasure: "Vegas" (premieres on CBS Sept. 27). It's not to be confused with all the other TV shows called "Vegas," most notably Robert Urich's old number featuring the star's ridiculously wide shoulders, Phyllis Davis' ridiculously deep decolletages and a zippy red 1957 Ford Thunderbird.
This one does on a conventional broadcast network what the Starz Network's "Magic City" tried to do and failed at miserably.
That is, bring hot weather resort towns full of corruption back to their origins in the late '40s and early '50s. In the case of "Magic City," it was Miami, encircled by the Cuba-loving mob. In the case of Vegas, it's the mob moving in (symbolized by Michael Chiklis) and meeting up with law enforcement still redolent of Vegas' status as a sand-covered frontier town on the lookout for prowling nighttime coyotes (in the person of Dennis Quaid, always a pleasure on screens on any size).
The new sheriff carries a Winchester .30-30, wears a cowboy hat and strides into dangerous situations with his shoulders hunched and his rifle ready to do his talking for him. He could be Chuck Connors in "The Rifleman," for pity's sake.
The show's pilot wasn't great, but it was nothing if not watchable.
Bad Idea Bound to Be Pretty Good TV: "Nashville" (Oct. 10, ABC). The idea of a weekly generational catfight between Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere as country singers of different vintages has cornered half the entire season's capacity for sexism and ageism.
The good news is that Britton and Panettiere are good, so who's going to care much? It doesn't hurt that all that stereotyping was created by writer Callie Khouri, who once gave the world "Thelma and Louise," a movie that gave the world female buddies in a way pop culture had never seen before.
Khouri is married to T-Bone Burnett, who's going to be executive producer of the show's music. To anyone who knows anything at all about vernacular American music, that's all you need to say: T-Bone Burnett, producer of the music for, say, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
I'm there.