There are always questions about when or why to check back in on a show from a critical perspective. The former standard was to review the premiere and move on, but the more we move towards episodic/weekly coverage the more critics are charting the week-to-week shifts in a series’ quality.

On the one hand, as Michaelangelo’s initial review indicated, The Voice is not breaking any new ground: Although it has been sold as revolutionary, and I liked the premiere quite a bit more than Michaelangelo did, there isn’t a whole lot here to really latch onto from a critical perspective. Although the show has drawn very strong ratings, it’s still just another reality competition singing show.

However, two things have brought us back to the series. The first is the fact that the show is officially more than a brief fling: It will return in early 2012 as a major tentpole within NBC’s lineup (on Monday nights leading into the Broadway-themed Smash), meaning that you’ll be hearing about The Voice a lot more in the future. The second is the fact that this is basically three different shows in one, with the current “Battles” proving to be incredibly different from the “Blind Auditions” that began the series (and the “Live Rounds” that will begin in a few weeks).

This kind of structure isn’t new: American Idol could also be divided into “The Auditions,” “The Hollywood Round,” and then the “Performance Shows.” But the “Battles” are so fundamentally different from the “Blind Auditions” that I’m very curious how the audience at large is responding to the shift. This week is the big test for the show’s ratings (which fell last week), now that audiences had a chance to see how this second round was going to play out, and I’ve got to say: The “Battles” are kind of terrible.

To be fair, the actual performances are effectively distinguished from other reality competition shows of this nature based on the focus on duets (although Idol’s been doing it for a few years now). Some of the duets have been pretty compelling (I thought Nakia and Tje were the strongest tonight on Ne-Yo’s “Closer”), and the song choices have been both generally good and fairly diverse (which is important for a show like this one, at least for me — “Baba O’Riley” was a nice departure from your usual Idol fare, for example). If I were to just sit down and watch the performances, I’d think The Voice was a fine addition to the reality competition landscape and a solid show for the early summer months where this kind of simple, escapist fare is welcome.

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The problem is that everything around the performances has been a complete mess since the Blind Auditions ended. During those auditions, the formula was simple: Contestants are introduced using your typical narratives of redemption/discovery/self-realization/”Living in your parents’ basement after you’re married,” they sing their songs, and then it becomes about the banter between the coaches as they each fight to convince that performer that they should be the one to advise them in the competition. It wasn’t a particularly brilliant formula, but I thought the coaches had an easy chemistry, and I liked the idea that the show could be snarky without directing that snark towards the contestants. The singers could sing, the coaches could bicker, and the balance between celebration of talent and competition could reach some sort of equilibrium.

It’s an equilibrium that has been absent thus far in the Battles. The show has entered into a weird liminal space that feels like it should be more competitive than the previous rounds but actually ends up feeling considerably less competitive. Despite Carson Daly doing his best (read: worst) impression of Michael Buffer, the attempts to make these out to be actual battles is sort of damaged by the time they spend rehearsing together, and the time they spend harmonizing, and the lack of time spent on really breaking down how each competitor performed. If we’re really meant to be comparing these two performances, we need actual judges who will break down the logic behind their decision, not Cee-Lo Green patting himself on the back for picking two great people before choosing to keep one of them for no discernible reason.

When Daly turns to the coaches after each performance, they sometimes give a preference, but they rarely say anything of substance, and they rarely take an opportunity to trash talk their opponents (the other coaches). Everything’s about how great they were, and how that one person who they thought would be at a disadvantage really proved themselves worthy, and how they’re “blown away.” There is just no longer any substance in the one part of the show that made the Blind Auditions so successful, the coaches: Now, it’s just your regular old singing competition with uncritical judges and heartwarming stories of alcoholism and “doing it for the kids,” but with about five different gimmicks being thrown around to make it seem more exciting. Every now and then there would be a brief spark, like Blake confronting his man crush on Javier, but everything else failed to tap into any of the competitive spirit that drove the earlier episodes, replaced instead with micro-competitions between two singers that (at least personally) I don’t have enough investment in to find interesting or suspenseful.

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And the biggest problem of all is that there are still two more weeks of this. The perils of scheduling the show amidst NBC's various season finales is that they only have so many timeslots where it can go, and so they’re spreading this out over four weeks. All this is doing for me is making the show seem like a slog, and calling attention to the fact that these were all clearly filmed over a two-day period given the fact that everyone is wearing the same clothes. It already feels like NBC is milking the show for all it’s worth instead of organizing the performances how they would be handled logically: These rounds should have aired in two-hour intervals over the course of two weeks, getting to the live rounds/audience voting sooner and letting the show return to the one gimmick, the coaching competition, that really made it stand out.

I’m not suggesting that this round isn’t functional: It reinforces each singer’s narrative before they go live in front of America in the voting rounds, which means that Nakia, Jared, Javier and Beverly are now more clearly defined in the eyes of those who will hopefully watch the later rounds. However, it’s less functional when it’s the same thing every week without any moderation, and when the “coaching” is so blasé that it just becomes “People Talk, then People Sing, then People Talk” instead of something fun and dynamic. These are the least engaging “Battles” that I think I’ve ever seen, with the competitive elements being almost arbitrary despite the clear presence of competitive spark in the Blind Auditions.

It’s been a substantial step backwards for the show, and it makes me wonder what Mark Burnett and NBC have been discussing in terms of how the show will survive in a two-hour weekly format at midseason. Will the show follow this same pattern, or will it more quickly get to the live round portion of the competition? Although the judges' careers might dictate a lighter schedule (which is likely why these rounds were filmed over such a short period of time), I just don’t think that the show can linger in rounds this boring for this long again.

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There is promise in The Voice, but it’s been woefully absent in the "Battles," and a potentially fun summer show is quickly being transformed into yet another singing competition. Is it possible that the live rounds will return the show to what it did well, and rekindle some of that competitive spark between the coaches? Absolutely. But the idea that we’re supposed to want two more weeks of this repetitiveness doesn’t give me much hope for their understanding of what made this show so successful in the first place.

Stray Observations:

  • I may be the only one who feels this way, but this show would be so much better if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Why not actually hire Michael Buffer? And why not have the singers cut promos on one another? And why not have them wear robes and come out to theme music? I’m not saying that the show would be inherently better if it took more cues from boxing/wrestling/MMA, but every time they call these “battles” or refer to the stage as “the ring” I just imagine how much more entertaining it would be if they all really got into it.
  • I will say that I like the little rehearsal scenes, even if they’re the one part of the show that’s ripped straight out of American Idol with no attempts to pretend otherwise. Seeing how they first try to tackle the song is intriguing, and the mentors have been effectively hands on in trying to help them conceptualize the song. The “sit-downs” afterwards are much worse, though.
  • I wish we had more insight into the competitive logic behind each pairing, if there is such a thing. Are these being planned because they’re interesting, or because they’re even, or because they’re uneven and you want to create strategic advantages in the next round? The stakes of the competition are just so far removed from these rounds that it feels arbitrary, which is another contributor to the loss of momentum. I mean, it makes more sense from a television perspective to have close competitions that make it seem more suspenseful, but Javier and Beverly were so obviously going through in their rounds that I have to presume some other criteria was being followed.
  • The battle between Jared Blake and Elenowen was honestly terrible: She wasn’t hitting the notes, and Jared was completely all over the map. As far as I could understand it, Blake picked Jared for not sucking as much as he thought he would, which seems like a hollow victory to me.
  • Don’t think there’s any plans to revisit the show again in the future, but the Live Rounds could prove different enough yet again to justify a drop-in, if that’s something readers might be interested in.

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