(CBS) The phrase "I'm working from home" has many pejorative meanings, the principal one being: "Can't you just understand I'm playing golf?"
However, for some misbegotten reason, the remaining 32 contestants in "The X Factor" were shunted off to visit their mentors in their respective palaces and perform. Nicole Scherzinger, L.A Reid and Paula Abdul live, mercifully, in the United States. Simon Cowell, however, seems to rest his head (doubtlessly with no mercy at all) in France.
So off went eight young girls to live with Simon Cowell. That sentence doesn't sound too good. So please let me explain that the remaining contestants were split into four groups: boys, girls, over 30s and groups.
Some allegedly mysterious producer (who happens to work for Cowell) decided that Cowell and the girls would be a perfect mentoring match, which felt the tiniest bit Berlusconiesque in flavor.
"I'm actually more happy for them than I am for me," trumpeted Cowell, his tongue in his cheek, his nose in the air and his face as taut as a worried violin string.
Cowell's French mansion forced 14-year-old Rachel Crow to muse that whoever wins "The X Factor" could have a house like Cowell's. Indeed. And whoever wins the Iowa State Fair's pie eating championship will win a James Beard award and live in Bernie Madoff's former penthouse.
The vocal groups turned up at Paula Abdul's Santa Barbara mansion and marveled at the sheer choreographed beauty of the place. Talking of choreography, some might have been stunned to learn that Abdul used to work with ZZ Top. The mischievous might wonder whether she had been their barber.
The over 30s were shunted off to Malibu to Nicole Scherzinger's house, and the boys landed at the Long Island Hamptons estate of L.A. Reid.
All this glamour wasn't enough, though. These famous judges needed even more famous judges to help them be even better, more accurate, more just judges.
Scherzinger produced Enrique Iglesias. Abdul whipped up Pharrell Williams. Reid offered merely Rihanna. And Cowell offered himself. His choice, Mariah Carey, you see, was unable to attend due to a hurricane. There is no evidence this had been created by all the wind emerging from Cowell's self-inflated waffle machine.
How could the needy neophytes desperate to win $5 million cope with all of this star-powered pressure? First, they had tea and scones. At least, one assumes they did, but the producers didn't show that part. They merely showed us peculiar auditions on patios with pools. It was as if these people were vying for a 15-minute stint at a garden party, rather than $5 million.
Rihanna adored the certainty of 14-year-old Brian "Astro" Bradley, whom some might find an insufferable little blowhard, which would make him perfect for the entertainment business.
Meanwhile, the girls had to sing next to Cowell's extravagant backyard water basin.
A failure to find all of this just so slightly absurd would have merely signified a failure to keep your eyes open and your wits within touching distance.Was it any wonder that Simone Battle, a veteran of child stardom and the Black Eyed Peas, sang "Help"?
It was no less ridiculous at Abdul's house. The groups performed with a background of Abdul's waterfalls. Surely this had been the location for at least one misguided proposal on "The Bachelor."
In the middle of it all were desperate after-performance interviews conducted by the garden statue that is presenter Steve Jones. It was also hard not to imagine that these performances had been polished in post-production in order to bear only a passing resemblance to what was actually being sung in the Hanging Gardens of RichVille.
The longshot, 49-year-old Dexter Haygood, a former inhabitant of L.A.'s Skid Row, wept in Jones' arms, just outside what might well have been Scherzinger's dining room. Those moved by symbolism would have suggested this was a poignant indication of the thin line between stardom and failure, luck and ill fortune. Those merely reliant on their ears would have found Haygood's version of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" simply the most painful sort of crazy.
Those of a political bent might have been tempted to launch Occupy Hollywood Stars' Gardens.
Meanwhile, back in the Hamptons, it was hard to focus on the singers when we had so many close-ups of Rihanna's impossibly long fingernails.
Back at Cowell's French mansion, one of the great mysteries was Tora Woloshin, car mechanic. She had been strangely rejected by "American Idol" in 2005 because of a suspect background check and, to this day, has no idea why she failed. Suddenly, here she was within sniffing distance of Cowell's drinks cabinet. Dressed in a few castoffs from the Rue St Denis area, she went through a dance version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
"It just doesn't get to me," said Cowell, out of her earshot.
A group formed by Cowell from individual girl rejects - now called Lakoda Rayne - managed to hush out Abdul's waterfalls by attempting to be four Gagas singing "Born This Way." It was like a final scene from an early episode of "Beverly Hills 90210". All that was missing was Brenda's scowl and Brandon's bewilderment.
"Something was off," the girls all seemed to agree, with consummate wisdom.
Meanwhile, next to Scherzinger's pool, 42-year-old Stacy Francis somehow managed a mesmerizing, pulsating version of "Purple Rain." One half expected the pool to turn purple and fountains to suddenly emerge in imitation of those at the Bellagio in Vegas.
"I think the neighbors heard that," offered a stunned Iglesias. In this part of Malibu, the neighbors don't live close.
Francis wept. Scherzinger wept. Iglesias wanted to weep, but perhaps feared for his image. Instead, he took a syringe full of reality and injected it into the show: "The only thing is, is it good for today's market? Will it sell?"
Ah, yes. The sell. The all-important condiment of "The X Factor".
If you sell, you'll be able to buy a house with a pool. And, perhaps, even waterfalls.
The show continued to switch from coast to coast to France. Philips Lomax, in the Hamptons, decided to sing a Rihanna song to the lady herself. To motivate himself, he took a walk around Reid's pool.
"Please Don't Stop the Music" was the song. Lomax, one of the many apparently contemporary trilby-wearers, offered a lounge version of Rihanna's hit.
"It was very charming," said the lady herself.
"I'm not sure it works commercially," intoned Reid, the voice of rhyme, reason and readies.
And that's the thing. Who could show these pool-owners the money? The 53-year-old wedding singer, Elaine Gibbs, performed an Oasis song extremely well. But could she make everyone enough money from it? Enough so that there would be some left over for her to buy at least a house, and then, some day, a house where she could swim?
The more one sat gazing at these patios and pools, the more one realized that the artificial setting increased the echo of one of Cowell's favorite phrases from "American Idol": this was verging on karaoke, especially with so many performing to a backing track.
It was supremely competent karaoke. These are artists you would happily have sing at your wedding. But where was the star quality? Where was the performance that would immediately drive you to raptures and, shortly afterward, iTunes?
We had to end on a high, though. So there was little Drew Ryniewicz. When I say "little," I mean that she's merely 14 years old.
"I have been praying my butt off," she said.
With the backing of a Steinway being tinkled by Cowell's pool, Ryniewicz staged a very mature, innovative version of "It Must Have Been Love," originally the baby of Roxette.
"Amazing," said Cowell, to his group of acolytes, one of whom asked if she was just too young.
And so we were left hanging. Which of these would make the final 16? Which would never see a rich person's pool again?
The 16 who make it to the live shows ought to be seen on Sunday. Unless, that is, Detroit and Texas are impolite enough to stage an ALCS Game 7. If that happens, Fox's schedulers will surely head for the hills. Or merely throw themselves into the nearest star's pool.