Premiering its second season just after last night's nail-biter of a Super Bowl, NBC's singing competition The Voice tried to keep the excitement level up, but mostly failed. The show is such a strange creature -- part American Idol dreammachine, part game show (almost), all not quite right.
First off, those chairs. Oh those stupid chairs! The Voice's initial gimmick is that its four celebrity judges — Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, and Blake Shelton — decide whether they like a singer or not before they see them. A contestant walks out on stage, starts doing their thing, and after a judge has heard something they like, he or she registers approval by pressing a big silly button and their chair, an enormous red space throne, swivels around in dramatic fashion with the words "I Want You" lit up on an LCD screen at the chair's base. The idea is that this whole thing is based solely on a Voice, rather than anything so shallow as looks. It's an interesting concept when you consider the occasions on American Idol when Randy Jackson or Steven Tyler (and before him Simon Cowell) have sent comely ladies with less than stellar singing voices through to the next round, but that's not really a common enough occurrence to base an entire show around avoiding it. Mostly the chairs are nothing more than a cheesy stage effect, one that offers the four judges the unfortunate opportunity to mug heavily for the cameras. The conceit of the chairs forces them to become part of the spectacle in a far more performance-y way than anyone on Idol or other similar shows has to do. (Though to be fair, or equally unfair, ginned-up judges moments were also part of what sank The X Factor.) Levine and Shelton are the chief offenders here, doing lots of clapping and standing and pointing and, worst of all, holding a hovering hand over their button, as if we're to be inching up closer on the couch, so eager to find out the important outcome. It's forced excitement in the most strained way. There's nothing organic about it. We did not care about the chairs before, they did not exist in our minds, but now they are suddenly here and supposed to signify everything? Some big deal at which we squeal, "He's going to push the button!"? It's not earned. It's a big, effort-heavy gimmick that lands with a thud.
The show also seems so closed-off, such a studio production. American Idol at least has the nation-trotting setup, collecting singers a bit more locally. There's something expansive and inclusive about it that just isn't present on The Voice. People simply show up in Los Angeles and are immediately ushered into the dark singing chamber, the four space thrones turned against them, and they start singing. Sure we get a little backstory, but those don't have the same oompf as they do on Idol, probably because they're going immediately on to a big stage and performing for an audience. The incremental, step-by-step success of Idol is missing here. Again, we're being asked to root for something too quickly; The Voice demands that we're sold on its premise right from the get-go. Here are your chairs and here are your contestants, now cheer! Cheer for them! Love them! It makes the show seem a bit lazy and pandering, as if the audience is simple enough to immediately thrill to something just because they're told to. We get that The Voice doesn't run as long as Idol and thus has to cut to the chase a bit quicker, but the rushed nature of the format creates too many opportunities for synthesized moments and indicated favorites, necessary aspects that other shows make happen a bit more naturally. (Or are just better, more subtle, at faking them.)