The passing of the torch from FOX’s elder statesman American Idol to NBC’s newcomer The Voice has indicated what many knew to be true: Audiences are ready for a new permutation of reality singing competition that keeps the sport of watching unpolished singers stumble and shine mixed with mini-concerts by Billboard chart toppers. The success of The Voice has rocketed its celebrity judges from middling spots on the charts back into the limelight, landing them magazine covers and hit singles galore. It’s even freed Christina Aguilera up to freely ditch wearing pants on national television.
ABC’s foray into the field is a clear nod to the NBC hit, with its panel of star singers—Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, Robin Thicke, John Legend, and Kelly Clarkson—and the concept of pairing up a hopeful newbie with one of the veteran performers. There are no spinning chairs or “teams” to speak of. Instead, the four hit singers are asked to find two duet partners per episode to perform with in front of a studio audience, who compete to be crowned the eventual winner.
For the first episode, things are kicked off in strobe-lit, seizure-inducing fashion (as they often are) with all four singers charging the stage and singing together. The likelihood that someone involved with the Grammy telecasts produced the segment is high, given the fact that a zillion, zig-zagging lights are topped with a frenetic marching band, who pound across the stage as all four pros sing their hearts out. It’s got the stamp of an awards-show medley maker all over it.
Before each superstar breaks off to scour the country for their respective duet partners, there’s an introduction by show host Quddus, who has bubbled up from TRL days to let us know he’s been quietly not aging for some years. We learn that these “selected amateurs” whom the singers will be working with are all vying for a recording contract with Hollywood Records. Meanwhile, a barrage of staggering numbers helps remind everyone that these four are certainly not flash in the pan performers, having sold tens of millions of records and netted dozens of Grammy Awards between themselves. As far as major label heavyweights go, these four have brought home the bacon for their labels.
The show is split in half so that we see each singer separately audition their duet partners, rehearse a song with them to test the blending of their voices (get ready to hear the word “blend” more than you might anticipate), and eventually choose one performer to bring to the Duets stage. Based on the first results, it looks like Nettles has a keen ear toward voices that blend well with her bluesy, country sound. Her standout choice, a young singer named J. Rome, has the polished feel of Usher with enough vibrato to keep things rootsy. Most importantly, he distracts from Jennifer’s vastly confusing outfit choice: a silvery, sequined-looking vest over a flowing, white bed sheet shirt, all worn over pants and some secondary undershirt. It’s a lot to take in.
John Legend nabs two singers who both compliment his buttery voice well, particularly the singer Johnny Gray, who sounds like he might be putting on a terrific Legend impression, given how seamlessly their voices merge. Robin Thicke, meanwhile, gravitates towards sexy songstresses who keep the sultry bedroom feel of his songs—particularly his hit “How Does It Feel,” sung with Olivia—intact.
The real surprise is that hit maker (and reigning Queen of Competitive Singing Shows as the very first American Idol winner) Kelly Clarkson seems to have the worst ear of the bunch, gravitating both times toward singers who either felt too green to hold their own alongside her (Jason) or sounded like they were desperately trying to match her famously powerhouse voice (Meredith). It isn’t a surprise to anyone but Clarkson that her choices made up the bottom two at the show’s end.
The show’s end wraps up all too quickly, which is astonishing for a two-hour premiere, but that has more to do with the rather uneventful feel of the whole show. There’s a constant feeling of waiting for something else to happen. In fact, the foursome kicking things off by singing together at the top felt like the peak of energy, which doesn’t bode well when another 114 minutes of show are ahead.
The greatest asset of the series is in the impressive combination of talent and personality of the judges. The stakes were raised with The Voice given the chemistry and personality of judges like Adam Levine and Cee-Lo, but it seems the group behind Duets did their homework for their format of choice. Thicke and Clarkson have charisma, particularly Clarkson who has always managed to come across as a normal human operating inside the world of celebrity. Nettles is sweet but a little loopy feeling in a way that could definitely bode well for crazy seekers, especially when we see her dissolving into tears during an audition that particularly touched her. More than anything, the judges just come across as shockingly normal and upbeat.
And why shouldn’t they be in great moods? This show is one, jazzed-up infomercial for each of their respective hits, since each duet partner hits the stage and performs one of the platinum seller’s hits for all of America. Just as American Idol cracked the code by cleverly tying together the competitive reality aspect of these shows with selling actual music (and cars, and cups of Coke, and so much more), Duets has followed suit. But these four have a list of hits that are far from unbearable to hear trotted out. Let’s just hope that through the angsty tears and noodling harmonies (don’t forget to blend!), the most important hurdle is reached: We all get to sing along to Clarkson’s great national treasure, “Since You’ve Been Gone.”