One of my favorite YouTube sensations of the past few years has been the choir kids of New York City's PS22. There was a period where I wandered through much of their archives every time I was feeling down, enjoying the way director Gregg Breinberg takes the voices of a bunch of kids and molds them together into something surprisingly soulful and moving. It certainly helps that Breinberg is a dead-on arranger, turning pop songs into things that sound terrific coming from a multitude of voices. I've always hoped that someone would make a documentary or something about the PS22 kids because the little snippets we get of their lives on YouTube are enjoyable and fun. In some ways, the YouTube videos feel like the show Glee wants to be but can never pull off because it's always wandering off in the general direction of being a crazy TV show.
The Choir, BBC America's latest import, is basically that. I realize that the season currently airing in the States (which I've seen the three episodes of) originally aired in the United Kingdom back in 2006 and chronicles events from 2005 for much of its run, but it's still a fun show, and it can be tremendously moving when it wants to be. There's a moment at the end of tonight's premiere where all of the kids pop in the CD that choir director Gareth Malone made of their little chorus singing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," and it somehow rises above the treacle of the song and the weakness of the kids' voices to become genuinely affecting. The kids still have a long way to go, but on the CD, they can hear how far they've come, and it makes for amazing television to watch that fact dawn on their faces. There are similar moments at the end of the other two episodes as well. In general, the show does its best when it pushes past the dullness of rehearsal and the strain of practice to show the reward at the end, the joy of performing in a group filled with many voices.
Sadly, The Choir doesn't live up to its own best moments. It's a good show, a very good one, but it's not a great one. The primary problem with it stems from its narrator, who tends to underscore absolutely every moment of any significance. Gareth will often say something like, "I need to cut some of the kids who just aren't hacking it," only to have the narrator repeat exactly what he's said as he goes about the process of doing so. It's an irritating device. I realize the show is primarily aimed at a family audience, but even the youngest of kids can understand something like really wanting to be a part of something and then realizing you're not quite good enough just yet or how happy it can make you to be selected for an elite group. By underlining every emotion present, The Choir has a tendency of undercutting them just when it's reaching a real emotional peak.
Similarly, there's rarely a good sense of time passing on the show. Part of this is the process of cramming something like a whole school year into just three episodes of television, but there are times when we're told how long the choir has been together, and it feels like they've been practicing for just days, not months. The show also has a harder time than it probably should delineating the kids in the choir from each other. They tend to blend together into a giant mass of voices (which is as it should be), and we get less of a sense of the ways that being in the choir have changed their lives for the better. These are disadvantaged kids living in a poor section of Middlesex. With more time, the show could give us a better sense of their lives, a better sense of just what it was like to become a part of something like a choir chosen for the Choir Olympics. (This is something the very similar but much, much better Nimrod Nation succeeded at beautifully.)
But all of that feels rather minor in the face of what the show does do well, which is put over some of the joy of singing, the joy of performance. Gareth, in particular, is an engaging presence. There's nothing so fun to watch in reality television as passion is, and watching Gareth start to realize that, yeah, he could turn these kids into something at least serviceable is a great thrill. He's single-minded and dedicated, and he has a big goal in mind that he keeps moving toward, step by small step. He's also the kind of guy who can precisely explain just why boys in their early teens often don't make the best of singers in a way that's not insulting but still humorous or just why the voices aren't yet blending together in the way he wants. The scenes where he tries to find something the choir will sound good singing but something that won't overpower them with its difficulty similarly show off his careful consideration of how best to get these kids interested in music.
I also like that the show isn't afraid to have its characters fail. For a good portion of the season, the kids sound awful, and even though their progression toward sounding good is enormously abrupt, the series still finds a way to make it feel surprising as they overcome the hurdles of learning just how to sound good. That moment when the kids listen to the CD and don't sound half bad is earned precisely because the outcome is in doubt. On most other shows of this ilk, the kids would be performing absolutely perfect renditions of all of their favorite pop hits by the end of hour one. On The Choir, they're belting out a kinda-shaky, but kinda-sweet version of a song that was annoying back when it was first featured in The Lion King and hasn't aged particularly well since. The moment feels real, like something out of a documentary rather than a reality show. There are plenty of moments like this in The Choir, and they tend to elevate the program.
In the end, The Choir can be a bit of a mess, but it's a terrific piece of television often enough that it's worth a look. Seeing these kids gradually turn the corner into being a tight group of singers is thrilling more often than not, and watching the ways that Gareth comes up with to make them realize just what it is that they're doing is a lot of fun as well. The thing that most holds back The Choir is a failure of nerve, but when it unexpectedly finds that nerve two or three times per hour, it turns into one of the best shows in its genre.
- I'm a little skeptical of the fact that the kids make the Choir Olympics. I can't help but think the British broadcasters perhaps influenced the judging or something. But that may just be my ultra-skeptical attitude from so many U.S. reality shows.
- Weirdly charming: Gareth thinking that Stevie Wonder was what all of the kids listen to.
- Apparently, there are three seasons of this show, which have been smushed together into one season for our enjoyment here in the States. No idea why, but expect lots of incoherence.
- Favorite PS22 video? "Lisztomania," hands down.