From the moment the Singing Souls dived into "Taking Over Me" by Evanescence, it was clear Simon Cowell wasn't pleased. It didn't take more than a few seconds for him to weigh in with his verdict.
"One of the worst groups I've ever heard in my life," he told the young women, with characteristic hyperbole. "Girls, you sounded like three cats being dragged up the motor way."
Hannah, the most aggressive of the group members, barked back, as dismissed contestants often do. But rather than get flustered, Simon met her anger with charm. When she petulantly stuck out her tongue at him, he playfully stuck his tongue out right back: You can't out-brat the brat.
By the time Singing Souls left the stage, Simon was smiling like crazy, barely containing deep belly laughs. Which raises the question: Who are you, and what have you done with Simon Cowell?
That interaction took place on "Britain's Got Talent," which has lately caught the world eye thanks to the breakthrough performance of Susan Boyle, the 47-year-old would-be West End star. But to watch him on "American Idol" and "BGT" in the same week is to see Simon as an actor more than a judge of talent. On the other side of the pond, he's beneficent, always laughing, indulgent of children (greeting the youngest and cutest with an "awwwww"). In other words: Santa Claus.
By contrast, this has been a bitter year for Simon on "Idol." Faced with a sea of un-thrilling competence on the show, he's been sour, dismissive, unhappy, brutal.
Even in embracing contestants he enjoys, he betrays little pleasure: He genuinely appears to wish this season were over already.
That attitude has been only exacerbated by his recent media blitz, in which he's glibly dropped hints about the quickly arriving end of his "Idol" contract; it's got one season left. He recently told TV Guide: "I think nine seasons is a lot. I've had the best time ever in my life, and then you have to consider doing something new or taking a break."
After that, not only is he free to leave "Idol" but also to launch a competitor. (That would most likely be "X Factor," another show he has a controlling interest in that is already a British hit.) Could Simon be tanking "Idol," letting air out of its tires, to clear the playing field?
Staged displeasure would be one explanation, though it should be said that no season of "Idol" has seen Simon express as much joy as "BGT" apparently does. His astonishingly white teeth are on regular display there, whether the auditioners are transfixing, like the young singer Shaheen Jafargholi, or numbing, like the party chanter DJ Talent.
Unlike "Idol," which long ago abandoned its mission of emotionally galvanizing the country, "BGT" seems designed to improve the national mood, like some sort of affirmative action for the global talent pool. Or perhaps a keeper of a public trust: One prize for winning "BGT" is a slot at the Royal Variety Performance, a show put on for the royal family, and it seems that the queen is one person Simon is actually nervous about pleasing. (Perhaps he's holding out for a future knighthood.)
"On behalf of common sense, decency and Great Britain, I'm gonna say no," he told a Darth Vader-attired Michael Jackson impersonator a couple of weeks ago. Even then, though, he was grinning, his good cheer impenetrable. Same went for the dreadful drag singer Dan Kahn, the comedic father-son Michael Flatley impersonators Stavros Flatly, or the preposterous stripper Fabia Cerra: "Fabia, they're through to the next round," Simon joked. (If only Normund Gentle had been so encouraged.)
And when he's been impressed, his warmth and generosity of spirit have been, frankly, shocking, of a depth not felt on "Idol" since he fell for Fantasia five years ago. To Julian Smith, who played a deeply unfashionable soprano saxophone with heavy bearing, Simon said, "I think there could be something special about you," then turned to his fellow judges and exulted, "Love that guy!" During Susan Boyle's performance, he rested his head in his hands and stared googly eyed, lighted up like an angel.
Unexpectedly, Simon' has been moved most by dancers this season, namely Flawless and Diversity, dance troupes that would do well on, say, "America's Best Dance Crew" but probably wouldn't win. Simon, though, sees them as harbingers of something greater, providing a statement of purpose for not only "BGT" but also a world in crisis.
"I've always believed that we in this country have talent," he began his critique of Flawless. "And where we are in the world right now, it's a horrible, tough time, particularly for young people.
"The example you've just shown is with a focus, with a commitment, with confidence, but with hard work you can achieve something. This is one of the best things I've ever seen in my life, really."
Whatever this speech was -- part rallying cry for the arts, part tester speech for a run at 10 Downing Street -- it was deeply felt and full of hope. America may have talent, but apparently all we've earned is Simon's acid.
Here he is more like Dick Cheney, but back home, he's inspired enough to be Barack Obama.