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Ray Mickshaw, Fox
Chris Rene, Melanie Amaro and Josh Krajcik are the three finalists on "The X Factor" who will compete for a $5 million recording contract. The winner will be announced Thursday night.

It has been a bloated, overwrought embarrassment. It has been full of laughably excessive production numbers and clumsily manufactured drama. It may have set records for cliched sound bites, insipid banter and shameless product placement.

It is "The X Factor," which Fox and the show's creator, Simon Cowell, made one of the most hyped series of the fall, and it is a paradox. For despite its many flaws "The X Factor" has somehow arrived at this week's three-contestant finale with two singers who have real star potential and a third who isn't terrible.

In a 90-minute live show on Wednesday night (airing locally at 7 p.m. on Ch. 13) the final three — Melanie Amaro and Josh Krajcik, who are great, and Chris Rene, who is occasionally interesting — will perform in a last quest for a $5 million recording contract. Once Wednesday's show ends, viewer voting begins, and the winner will be announced in a two-hour extravaganza on Thursday night (7 p.m., Ch. 13).

That two-hour show will no doubt feature "The X Factor" at its worst, with lots of fluff and rehash filling up the time before the tidbit that viewers have tuned in to see. That has been one of the show's worst features: a tendency to overstuff.

For most weeks since the series had its premiere on Sept. 21, there have been two shows a week, and many of those have been two hours long. Cowell, the former "American Idol" judge who made "The X Factor" his vehicle for returning to American television, has given the show a lowest-common-denominator pitch.

Moderately interesting back stories — Rene has had addiction issues; Krajcik worked in a burrito joint — have been blown up to Greek-tragedy proportions and repeated endlessly, the way you tell a child not once but many times to look both ways before crossing the street. Utterly unconvincing dramatics have been forced into the show, most glaringly with Amaro.

A wise man — me, in fact — said back in September, after Amaro first appeared, that Cowell would be performing a public service if he ended the show on the spot and gave her the prize. Everyone else who heard her various performances also felt she would most likely end up in the finals. Yet Cowell chose to cut her back in mid-October, only to chase her down at her home and invite her back into the contest. Anyone who bought this bit of theatrics — well, those with a bridge to sell, take note.

This utter lack of subtlety also has been evident in the show's performances, many of which were tricked out with so many dancers, backup singers and lighting effects that the actual competitor was sometimes hard to find, or hear. There's a reason the best Broadway musicals have only a few big production numbers; two hours' worth of them would drain the magic out of the form.

It often seemed as if the overblown musical numbers were an attempt to mask the lack of chemistry or fireworks among the four "X Factor" judges: Cowell, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and L.A. Reid. Cowell chose a format in which each judge "mentored" a group of singers (though we never really got to see any of that mentoring) and was in a sense competing against the other three. But these four judges are not witty or well spoken enough to create the kind of sparring that is a pleasure to watch. By season's end all of them, Cowell included, looked as if they would rather be somewhere else.

That vibe apparently transmitted to many potential viewers. Before the premiere Cowell had said an audience smaller than 20 million would be a disappointment, but the show never came close to that, with 11 million or so viewers becoming the norm after the initial curiosity wore off. Those numbers, though, were good enough to secure it a second season. And its reputation may benefit from the success of the eventual winner. Any of the three finalists could become a Carrie Underwood story, Underwood, of course, having been discovered by "American Idol."

How could such a poorly executed show produce these stellar finalists? America's star-making machinery, so dependent on connections and back-stabbing skill, has never been very good at finding and promoting every deserving artist. Some of our finest stage actors never make it out of the black boxes of Off Off Broadway. Great writers never do get anyone to publish their works.

Even a clumsy effort like "The X Factor" can find a few gems with relative ease. As for which of these three will come away with the top prize, in a sense it hardly matters; they are all on the map now, as are the other performers who almost made the finals. But if you want to know who will win — spoiler alert — I'll tell you:

Why Melanie Amaro will definitely win 'The X Factor' — Because she'll sell the most records. Amaro, a 19-year-old from Florida, has the kind of pure, powerful voice that not only is made for this type of competition but also could translate into a genre-crossing recording career. She has the makings of a pop diva, a country belter in the Martina McBride mold and probably a few others. With smart handlers she could put out the kinds of records that sell in multiple demographics.

Why Josh Krajcik will definitely win 'The X Factor' — Because he'll sell the most concert tickets. Krajcik, 30, is from Ohio, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he looks and sounds like a rocker: shaggy and compelling, both in appearance and in voice. He is reminiscent of Joe Cocker and has the same ability to rock out on one number and switch to scratchy balladry on the next. That's the kind of versatility you need to sustain a two-hour stage show.

Why Chris Rene will definitely win 'The X Factor' — Because he'll sell the most Pepsi. Throughout the show Pepsi has never let more than a few minutes pass before reminding viewers that it is the series' main sponsor. Pepsi cans have adorned the judges' table. A gimmick in which viewers chose the songs contestants would sing was called the Pepsi Challenge.

And, most glaringly, we have been reminded repeatedly that the winner will have the supreme honor of recording a Pepsi commercial. Rene, 28, who is from California, isn't a great singer, but he comes across as a likable guy — the kind of guy who, if he said, "Hey, wanna buy a Pepsi?" would cause you to pull out your wallet.