“The Voice” doesn't need to produce stars: it already has them in its coaches. That's how the singing competition has survived seven seasons without producing a Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, or Carrie Underwood.
It's still a joy to hear an incredible, unexpected voice, and it's especially fun to watch the coaches compete for a singer's affection. But for all the time that it spends on introducing us to contestants, “The Voice”'s format quickly dispenses with large groups of its singers during subsequent rounds. All that time, though, it keeps the attention stays on the coaches.
What matters, then, is the coaches' chemistry: how well they interact with the contestants and each other. Amazingly, the panel's chemistry has been strong since episode one despite the fact that there have been coach changes each of the past four seasons.
This fall, Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani have joined veteran coaches Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, who've been on every single season.
Starting with the first audition, the new panel proved that they, too, have incredible chemistry. There was a cascade of button pushes, and Adam Levine stood on his chair before perching on the top of it to make his case. For the last singer, Gwen climbed to the back of her chair and stood atop it, with Blake joking he couldn't do that because he'd been drinking.
Their competitiveness is both serious and playful. They're obviously having fun–but when one of them desperately wants a singer for their team, they might joke but they're still aggressive in their pursuit. To try to convince various contestants, Adam mocked Gwen's age, Gwen joked that Adam and Blake were phoning it in, and Blake mocked Adam's self-absorption. While Adam wrote a cheesy poem for a contestant, Gwen grabbed a mic and taught that contestant how to strut around the stage.
In episode one, Pharrell was the least likely to teasingly interact with or mock the other coaches, instead focusing more on appealing directly to the contestants. But he was perfectly comfortable, and holding back a little is far better than forcing jokey interaction.
Not insignificantly, the coaches all lose these face-offs gracefully: “I'm happy,” Adam told one contestant who chose Pharrell instead of him.
It's a perfectly calibrated mix, and Pharrell and Gwen fit right in, as if they've always occupied the second and third red swivel chairs. This could be any of the show's seven seasons; it doesn't feel like “American Idol” does now, which is like a show that's in search of what it once had, or appear like “X Factor” once looked, which is a show that was desperate for attention yet failing on every level.
The two-hour “Voice” premiere played out pretty much exactly as the other premieres and blind audition episodes have unfolded. There's a template and it works: backstage footage with extras milling about, a brief package telling us the singer's story, a decent if not amazing performance, button pushes, and then the coaches playing around and competing with each other.
Occasionally someone won't get a single button push, and it's kind of sad, but then the coaches show compassion and give constructive feedback. All four know how to talk to fellow artists with respect, and it's not awkward or uncomfortable or mean. They even offer advice about auditioning on their own reality show. “It's not about our chairs, it's about your great time,” Pharrell told a tearful Bianca Espinal, who all four coaches had just rejected. She seemed thrilled through her tears: “Oh my goodness. This is beautiful, thank you.”
If there's any problem on “The Voice,” it's the coaches' over-enthusiasm and hyper-competitive button-pushes. Every contestant doesn't need to be able to choose from three or four coaches, and frequently, it seems like the coaches press the buttons because the other coaches are pressing their buttons. The interaction between them is best when it's varied–not always all four fighting for the same person, or all four rejecting the same person.
But even when they are all eager to recruit the same contestant, watching the aftermath is nearly always fun, and it's hard to argue with enthusiasm and fun interaction, even if it comes as the result of peer pressure. These four coaches are lively and to watch.
Talking about the second auditioner, Claire, Adam Levine said, “somebody either has it or they don't.” That's true of chemistry among reality TV singing competition judges, and once again, “The Voice” has it.