‘The Sing-Off’ falls flat

At the start of NBC's “The Sing-Off,” Nick Lachey called it “a very special edition” of the a capella singing competition, which had the subtitle “Holiday Special.” Those were both very nice ways of saying that NBC cut the show: from the 11 hours, seven episodes, and 10 groups last year to two hours, one episode, and six groups this year.

Also, the prize was cut in half to $50,000, and the show lost last year's fun face-off performances between the bottom two teams. Along with all that, it lost a lot of what made it such a terrific series.

Most significantly, judge Ben Folds was gone, replaced by Patrick Stump because Ben Folds was on tour and apparently NBC couldn't figure out how to reschedule the show to film with its true star.

Stump couldn't figure out how to judge, either. While returning judges Jewel and Shawn Stockman gave specific feedback, identifying individuals' strengths and sometimes weaknesses, so much of what Patrick Stump said was pointless or generic.

The first group to perform was Timothy's Gift, the country/rock group from Nashville who sing together in maximum security prisons. Jewel said their lack of percussion and bass was like “showing up to a baseball game with no bat,” but pointed out that their approach worked. Stump decided to make it about himself and ask a question as if he was the host trying to fill time: “I've never played a prison. What is it like?”

He told SanFran6, a group that included an amazing beat boxer, “I was entertained the entire time.” Commenting on the performance by The Exchange, a group formed from some members of other groups that competed on an earlier season, he said “everyone got to shine in their unique way.”

Thanks, Paula Abdul.

In Stump's defense, he was asked to become a reality TV judge over the span of two televised hours. That's a nearly impossible task, and an unfortunate consequence of the shortened season is not being able to see any growth or change.

Really, that described the whole episode. Each of the six groups performed once and then three of them were cut, so there was no chance to see them grow week to week. (Amazingly, the two-hour episode had time for two time-filling performances by non-contestants, including one with the judges and last season's winners, Home Free, plus a recap of the final three performances and critiques.)

The groups cut–who didn't even get to say anything when they left–included A.Squared, five guys from Yale who use technology to loop their voices and combine them. Their performance was weird and interesting and maybe not even technically a capella; Shawn said that they could “change a capalla music” but called himself a “purist” who found their approach “overwhelming.” But we only got to see them once and then they were gone, so we really don't know what they're capable of doing.

The second round was “judges' choice,” something usually reserved for reality competition judges who know a competitor well and want to play to their strengths and/or challenge them. Here, it was sort of meaningless.

Yes, the final round–Traces, The Exchange, and The Melodores–really delivered incredible performances, concluding with The Melodores' surprisingly powerful version of “Take Me to Church.” Still, when The Melodores became the show's first collegiate group to win, they did so by only performing twice.

The one thing “The Sing-Off: Holiday Special” had working in its favor was, as always, a lot of incredible a capella singing that often puts music-backed singing on other shows (“The Voice,” “American Idol”) to shame. It's incredible what people can do when they combine just their voices.

As a show, though, “The Sing-Off” was pretty flat.