The X Factor debuted this fall to a critical yawn and underwhelming ratings, as many fans charged that Simon Cowell's new singing competition didn't differ enough from American Idol. Several weeks later, however, the show's Idol-like audition rounds are over, and the series has moved on to a unique new segment. Contestants are split into four groups (boys, girls, groups, and singers over 30) and sent to each of the four judges' houses. There, they endure a boot camp of sorts as they compete to make it through more cuts. With this very un-Idol-like addition, some critics say The X Factor may finally be setting itself apart. Is the series really getting better?

Yes. It's enjoyable now: "The X Factor is finally finding its voice," says Michael Slezak at TV Line. The round at the judges' houses — complete with "impeccably manicured lawns" — is quite unique, unlike the "surprisingly spotty auditions" that reeked of Idol mimicry. It was also smart to have the judges choose the contestants' songs in this round. Clearly, the show is evolving into a distinct reality competition that "might seriously turn out to be appointment television."
"The X Factor recap: Home is where the start is"

No. It's still a disaster: A series of "exceptionally terrible, self-parodying performances" during the judges' houses round does The X Factor no favors, says Phil Nugent at The A.V. Club. During one episode, "I had to go back to look at the opening credits to make sure that Christopher Guest wasn't the special guest director." One contestant vowed to the camera that his goal was to make sure that people "remember my name and remember my songs and my legacy on the Earth." Such histrionic contestants seem determined to inspire future Saturday Night Live sketches.
"Judges homes #2"

At least some contestants are actually worth watching: The show still isn't perfect, says Dave Holmes at New York, "but it's starting to get fun." The moment when everything started clicking? The fun, silly, and charming performance of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" by the group Stereo Hoggz. Much of the series had been heavy-handed, overproduced, and emotionally manipulative. But this performance was "pure joy."
"The X Factor recap: Wait! It's actually starting to get fun!"