From the talented to the wacky, meet the prospective contestants before the show premieres

Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

After months of TV teases, promotions and billboards, The X Factor, Simon Cowell‘s U.K. behemoth of a singing competition, has arrived stateside.

The show will premiere on FOX next Wednesday, Sept. 21 – and if the first two episodes are any indication (PEOPLE got a recent sneak peek), Cowell and his team of judgesPaula Abdul, L.A. Reid and Nicole Scherzinger – are pulling out all the stops.

Here are five things you need to know before the show’s premiere.

1. It s like American Idol – only super-sized.
Forget the cozy rooms and intimate auditions. Contestants on X Factor – ages 12 and older, solo or in groups – perform for the first time in front of the judges in a jam-packed auditorium of fans who don’t hesitate to hurrah or heckle. How’s that for pressure? And once the tryout process is complete, each judge mentors a team of hopefuls to poke and prod them to become the last star (or stars) standing.

2. Paula and Simon are back – and stronger than ever.
In the first hour we see Simon liken themselves to an old married couple. Paula jokingly smacks Simon on the arm. And there’s plenty of playful bickering. It’s comforting.

3. Welcome Cheryl Cole, er, Nicole Scherzinger.
The first episode features British songstress Cole behind the judges’ table – before she was replaced by Scherzinger for episode two. It’s a good thing – Cheryl never appears completely comfortable next to the expert bigwigs.

4. There’s plenty of drama.
With a $5 million prize at stake, the contestants are hungry – and full of emotion. Witness Marcus collapsing on the floor post-audition, or Chris, a recovering meth and cocaine addict, fresh out of rehab, hoping to support his young son. And the requisite what-the-heck-was-that moments don’t disappoint. For instance: an online blogger named Geo drops trou, and a sassy singer named Xander critiques Simon’s fashion. “Have you ever worn a shirt that isn’t gray?” he has the temerity to inquire.

5. The talent is undeniably powerful.
An 18-year-old student named Melanie delivers a powerful rendition of Beyoncé‘s “Listen” and brings a teary-eyed Scherzinger to her feet, and, offering possibly the biggest compliment of his career, an awestruck Cowell tells single mom Stacy, 42, “I’ve done this a long time. That was one of the best auditions I’ve ever seen in my life.”