Tonight on The X Factor USA‘s very first live show, the judges — especially Simon Cowell and Nicole Scherzinger — made sure we all knew who the real stars of the show were. When it was their turn to make a comment on the latest performance, both chose instead to jab at the other, until it became painfully, painfully clear to us at home that this is not a playful rivalry.

Nor is it the expected one, since L.A. Reid and Paula Abdul garnered more of Simon’s insults in past weeks. But all that was just friendly ribbing among mutually respecting professionals compared to tonight’s mean-spirited Simon-Nicole bickering. Simon and Nicole might actually despise each other.

Read the recap: The X Factor Live Show Recap: Five Go Home

Or maybe that’s just what they want us to think. On a show this huge and heavily produced (and that’s still struggling to live up to Simon’s ratings expectations) it’s not crazy to wonder if the tension between the judges has been intentionally amped up, if not completely fabricated, to give The X Factor some much-needed drama and buzz-worthy moments. I mean, look, here I am, writing a whole article about it! Buzz successfully attained.

But still, I can’t shake the sense that Simon is seriously regretting sending Cheryl Cole away so many weeks ago. Nicole could do nothing right in his eyes tonight — though, to his credit, she did do many things very, very wrong.

Who knows where the Simon/Nicole hate started — maybe around the time when every X Factor reviewer and recapper on the Internet said they prefered Cheryl to Nicole’s over-the-top insincerity? — but tonight, it started when Nicole missed her cue to announce her first Over 30s performer. I didn’t catch what Simon said, but it was bad enough that Nicole looked straight at the camera and said sarcastically, “Thanks a lot for the support right now, Simon. It’s the first live show. Awesome.” No, not awesome. The word you’re looking for is “YIKES.” That awkward, barely contained outburst would have been better left for under-the-breath mumbling, or a commercial break.

Simon later got a subtle jab in at Nicole when giving Dexter his critique, saying, “You’re interesting and you’re unpredictable, much like your mentor.” Now THAT’S how you give a sarcastic back-handed compliment.

Nicole’s song choices also had Simon rolling his eyes all night long. It’s funny that he specifically brought in the former Pussycat Dolls singer as some sort of judge-upgrade, because it’s clear that he thinks she’s an amateur, and a rather idiotic one at that. When Nicole told Stacy Francis that her performance “gave [Stacy] wings,” Simon stopped Nicole for clarification: “What do you mean it gave her wings?” Did he ask because he’s never heard that metaphor before? No. He asked because he’s relishing every opportunity to question what Nicole says and does — and because he knows that the more Nicole talks, the less qualified she sounds. The pettiness is on him. But the cheesiness is on her.

The whole two-and-a-half-hour feud peaked when Simon called Nicole and Paula a pair of “spiteful little cats” for not enjoying his off-pitch vampiress Tiah Tolliver’s creepy performance. That was uncomfortable. But by then, my amused discomfort at watching these two bicker had morphed into genuine annoyance. Especially that it happened when they should have been discussing all of the obvious problems with Tiah’s performance.

The more time that Simon and Nicole spend fighting each other, the less time they spend considering their performers and giving helpful (and much-needed) feedback. When they fight, the people who should be getting the attention on The X Factor, the regular folks take the backseat to two self-obsessed celebrities having an obnoxious ego-off. I already have a show that gives me that, and it’s called The Celebrity Apprentice. (And that show’s for charity.)

What did you think of all the bickering between Simon and Nicole? Were you entertained or annoyed?

(Image courtesy of FOX)

Meghan Carlson

Senior Writer, BuddyTV

Meghan hails from Walla Walla, WA, the proud home of the world’s best sweet onions and Adam West, the original Batman. An avid grammarian and over-analyzer, you can usually find her thinking too hard about plot devices in favorites like The OfficeIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and How I Met Your Mother. In her spare time, Meghan enjoys drawing, shopping, trying to be funny (and often failing), and not understanding the whole Twilight thing. She’s got a BA in English and Studio Art from Whitman College, which makes her a professional arguer, daydreamer, and doodler.