Quick thoughts on the premiere of NBC’s ‘The Voice’

Nigel Lythgoe returned to “American Idol” and immediately started talking about shaking up the formula, mixing things up with the themes and the results shows and whatnot. Then he ultimately had a reality check, stepped back and with the exception of the two new judges, “American Idol” has looked and felt almost exactly the same this season. And guess what? Lythgoe made the right call, because ratings haven’t fallen off, proving that people didn’t require a New Coke version of “American Idol.”
But just because people didn’t *require* a New Coke version of “American Idol” doesn’t mean we wouldn’t gratefully accept such a thing if it were presented properly. 
Case in point: Tuesday (April 26) night’s premiere of NBC’s “The Voice.” Leaving aside that “The Voice” is much more a bastardization of the “X Factor” formula, NBC’s latest should be a hit — an NBC-sized hit, whatever the heck that means in 2011 — exactly because of how different it looked and felt from “American Idol.”
The first two hours of “The Voice” don’t necessarily feel like enough to base a review upon, since I don’t get what the actual body of the show is and when that will kick in. But I definitely felt like I got enough out of it to draw a few quick conclusions, with the bottom line being that “The Voice” may be the most effective new show that Mark Burnett has produced in years, which isn’t a huge statement, but still has some value. “The Voice” delivered an entertaining two hours, far more tightly packed than any “Idol” audition episode for years, though that’s an unfair comparison.
Really, I could easily review “The Voice,” but I’m too tired to try to gel ideas together cohesively. I’m not too tired for bullet points, so click through…
*** Mark Burnett knows how to manufacture efficient sob stories. “American Idol” has become clumsy and this year’s auditions were excruciating because very few of the triumph-over-adversity stories were well-told. One of my favorite under-appreciated Burnett shows was “The Contender,” in which the opening episode introduced a group of aspiring boxers and in almost no time gave us simple, primal reasons to root for all of them. That’s what “The Voice” did. We had a couple recovering addicts and grieving children, but most of these stories were far more basic: A couple wants to get their own house. A girl is kinda homeless and needs a break. A teenager is shy. “Idol” pushes too hard sometimes. With these two hours, Burnett was almost graceful in just letting viewers relate and being done with it.
*** Good idea not to show bad auditions. I guess if you have Blake Shelton, Cee-Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine, you don’t waste their time with clowns? That’s nice. Everybody we saw on Tuesday could sing on some level. It’s completely unfair to compare these over-produced stage performances with the shout-y a cappella performances we get on “Idol” auditions, but this was a good showcase for some talented people.
*** The “Blind Audition” part of the premise is a crock. The blind audition format is what’s keeping the “X Factor” producers from suing Burnett, so it’s kinda important. The judges sit in comfortable red chairs facing away from the singers. If they like somebody, they push a button, the chairs swing around and the words “I Want You” light up. It makes for good drama, seeing how many judges will buzz in for each contestant and watching the singers’ happy faces when they know they’re guaranteed to be chosen. But that’s all it is. Drama. Don’t pretend it makes the show more “enlightened” than it is. For one thing, the producers somehow managed not to let the ugly singers into the room for Tuesday’s premiere. Gawky, tall, overweight Jeff Jenkins and bald, militant Beverly McCellan were as close as Tuesday’s episode came to contestants far outside of the mainstream. And without looking at them, I’d have rejected Jeff for sounding like a Muppet and Beverly for doing mid-tier Janis Joplin karaoke. 
Otherwise, the people showcased on Tuesday were generally cute, handsome or not-unattractive. But guess what? Looks play a role in popular music. What does the show gain from disingenuously denying that? One of the few contestants who didn’t get picked on Tuesday’s episode was Sonia Rao, an utterly gorgeous young lady with a better-than-average voice. Nobody selected her, but judges Adam Levine and Cee-Lo Green both felt irked when they saw her and rightfully so. No, Sonia’s voice wasn’t the best we saw all evening, but the show isn’t giving a Special Medal For Honorary Singing to its winner. The winner gets a recording contract. If “The Voice” thinks it’s being all self-righteous and holier-than-“Idol” by saying that it’s gonna favor contestants who sing a hair better than a Sonia Rao and leave aside that Sonia Rao could be on the cover of magazines and could sell albums (to say nothing of the international advantages of signing a first-genation Indian-American), then that’s foolish and delusional. 
And speaking of foolish and delusional, it was very sweet of “The Voice” to give quality time to the tragic story of Kelsey Rey, who is accustomed to being successful because she’s gorgeous and thinks that because she was fought over by several judges she has finally overcome the stigma of being hot. It would have been intriguing if the producers had put an ogre with a thing, breathless baby-doll voice in to fool the judges. But if Kelsey Rey doesn’t think she got several judges to turn around because her voice screams “Cute Girl Pop Tart”… she’s bought into what “The Voice” is pimping.
The blind selection was a one-time only thing. From here on out, the singers will be judged exactly as they would be in the real world, based on vocal talent, but also appearance and charisma. That’s how the judges will judge them and how America will judge them. And, frankly, it was how the producers already judges them to put them on the stage for tonight’s episode. But hey… Totally different from “X Factor.”
*** The judges didn’t judge, but they related well. Seldom was heard a discouraging word, but without freak-show auditions, why were the judges going to complain? Instead, the judges seemed to be having a great time deliberating on their choices and then arguing their cases when contestants had to choose between different celebs. Levine and Shelton had a funny brotherly bickering thing, while the giggly, sloppy Aguilera practically fell over herself flirting with Levine (and a couple contestants). With Aguilera falling out of her low-cut top and Levine and Shelton giving yearning glances at the camera, there was also eye candy for anybody. And Cee-Lo’s a tremendously compelling and goofy little dude, even the good-to-go Aguilera wasn’t immediately interested in molesting him. There was also much more of a group energy between these four than “Idol” has been able to get out of Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest this season. But…
*** Don’t believe the “These people are better than the ‘Idol’ contestants” hype. The judges fell over themselves to woo McCellan, whose Janis was barely on an Amanda Overmyer level, not even close to a Crystal Bowersox level. Country Boy Patrick Thomas may have a more utilitarian voice than Scotty McCreery, but I know who’s more distinctive. And Tarralyn Ramsey, who opened the show, has the kind of voice “Idol” voters eliminated mid-season every season. It’s so lazy and knee-jerk to try to raise up a rival by denigrated “Idol” and it’s silly. A couple of the people we saw tonight — Javier Colon and Xenia in particular — would have been assets on “Idol,” but some of these people wouldn’t have made it through the auditions. And vice versa. It was a good showing of talent. It wasn’t miraculous or anything. Neither the expanded age range, nor the blind format prevented the night’s only “old” singer from being sent away, largely because anybody listening could hear her age in her voice.
*** The judges aren’t really judges. As a commenter correctly noted, part of why the judges aren’t judging is because they aren’t judges. They’re coaches or mentors or whatever. I’ve called them judges here, because they didn’t really coach or mentor in the premiere episode. They also didn’t judge. So they were mostly famous people who the contestants were really honored to be close to. My tendency to call them judges stems from “Idol,” of course. And old habits die hard. Including…
*** Frenchie Davis still doesn’t get it. Over the years, an urban legend has built up that when Frenchie Davis was disqualified in the second season of “Idol,” she was a favorite, as opposed to a contestant we’d basically seen once or twice and had received a bit of screentime. Frenchie has always been somewhat in denial about the circumstances behind her disqualification, which continues to this day. And as for her voice? Yes, she’s got a great set of pipes, but that audition tonight was shout-y and not melodically appealing at all. She got lucky that the judges turned around and gave her that shot. I fear that the show is going to use Frenchie to make a “We’re Not ‘Idol'” point, which isn’t fair to Frenchie, isn’t fair to viewers and pretty much violates the “It’s all about the voice” credo of the whole endeavor.
*** We need to see more of Nicole from Elenowen. I’m still confused by the format. So groups are allowed? But the only non-solo act we saw was Elenowen, a husband and wife duo from Nashville who replaced the subtle, lilting harmonies of “Falling Slowly” with a competitive shout-fest. I didn’t like the performance, but it’s a tremendous relief that the blind format of “The Voice” gives hope to an artist as stunning as Nicole from Elenowen. I’m sure that she, like Kelsey Rey, has been held back over the years by people appreciating her aesthetic virtues.
*** Carson Daly added nothing. He also didn’t detract from the show. In Carson Daly Land, that’s a win.
*** I’m in. I don’t know how I’ll rearrange my schedule to fit this one in on my DVR and I don’t know if I’ll bother writing about it again until the finale, but I’m definitely on-board. Early indications are that “The Voice” is going to give NBC a level of buzz it just can’t get from “The Biggest Loser” or “The Sing-Off.” I liked the first episode and I’ll return. I expect other viewers will feel the same way. What would constitute a “hit” for NBC at this point? I don’t know…
Like I said, it’s late and I’m tired…
What’d you think of the premiere of “The Voice”? Did you watch? Will you watch again?

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