Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How "The Voice" went from refreshing to unbearable

When NBC's "The Voice" premiered its first season on April 26 of last year, it was a surprisingly refreshing take on the singing competition series, and a very good alternative to the dreadful "American Idol". I started watching "The Voice" for two main reasons: I was curious to see if this was the show that could pull NBC out of the toilet, and of course there were those spinning chairs.

The second season premiered after the Super Bowl and the ratings were higher than ever. But the show has taken a severe plunge in quality this season and a show that I once found did everything right has now done almost everything wrong.

The blind auditions of "The Voice", gimmicky though they may be, are the most interesting part of the show - the bar is low, but they have a leg up on "American Idol" in the suspense department. There's an interesting component to the competition that comes with judge investment and contestant control. The blind auditions still work fine, and those aren't going anywhere - but once the show hits the battle rounds, the spinning chairs are abandoned altogether and the show's key differentiating quality is lost as the least interesting part of the competition is dragged out for weeks. Perhaps its an unavoidable problem in singing competition shows - the "Hollywood weeks" of "American Idol" aren't any better - but working those chairs back in may bring some flair back to them.

Last year I found Carson Daly to perform his function as host well - he rooted for contestants with their families, and as a known proponent of new musical talent I believed him. There's nothing wrong with comedy, but making things funny can seem self-serving, which is the main problem I have with Ryan Seacrest. So perhaps he was a bit low key, but Carson knew his place and didn't make the proceedings all about him. This year, it's as if Carson Daly forgot how to host a television show. He keeps looking back and forth between the person he's talking to and the camera and it looks just as unprofessional as he looks uncomfortable with the whole process. His interactions with the coaches are very stilted and he is equally awkward in handling their playful banter. If these were problems happening last year too, I wasn't noticing them anywhere near as much as this year - it's become distracting, and it's had me fast forwarding through live shows because I just can't bear to sit through it anymore.

The contestants this year are far less interesting. The show seemed to really capitalize on its blind audition process last year when it found such stars as finalists Nakia and Beverly McClellan, but this year every contestant has no personality outside of a sob story - sure, it may be worth noting that a contestant's father is ill or that an illness kept them from singing for two years, but when a line like "I mostly just stayed in my room" is passing for a primetime series on network television, we're grasping at straws.

I remember seeing online last year that the show would eventually incorporate a "social media correspondent" during live shows, and it there was anyway to totally screw up what was quickly becoming a singing reality show whose success I could actively root for, I was sure this would be it. As it turned out, Alison Haislip was very comfortable in front of the camera, didn't stumble in her quick journeys through the social media "V Room" and actually managed to incorporate interesting material from the world of social media. Naturally, she was fired and replaced with the completely incompetent Christina Milian this year, who must sit around all day thinking of the most mundanely boring questions she could ask contestants. It's never been a necessary part of the show and if they had never had it I wouldn't have cared, but now it's genuinely awful and needs to be put out of its misery. Together, we can find a way to cut the show down to 90 minutes - who's with me?

The name "The Voice" would seem to imply an emphasis on pure musical ability - this is constantly mentioned as what makes the show different, and is certainly supported with its blind audition process. However, flash has been dominating the performances on the live shows this year as visual stunts such as shirtless dancers and large visual props have been incorporated into the performances. Some of the coaches have been just as critical of such unnecessary showmanship, and others have embraced it. Erin Martin had one of the most distinct voices in the competition - she wowed early on with performances of "Hey There Delilah" and "Your Song" - yet since her elimination last week, she's been critical of her coach Cee Lo Green for pressuring her into performing a broad, visual spectacle of "Walk Like an Egyptian" that didn't really showcase the part of her that supposedly matters most in this competition - you know, the voice.

I'm happy that NBC finally has something of a hit, but last year the show was much simpler and accomplished what it set out to do much better. At the height of its success, its quality has now hit a sour note.