'Duets': It Doesn't Always Take Two

Last night ABC debuted its new summertime easy-tainment show Duets, which, alas, is not a series adaptation of that curious Gwyneth Paltrow/Paul Giamatti/Huey Lewis karaoke movie.

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Last night ABC debuted its new summertime easy-tainment show Duets, which, alas, is not a series adaptation of that curious Gwyneth Paltrow/Paul Giamatti/Huey Lewis karaoke movie. Instead it's an opportunity for four "Superstars" — Kelly Clarkson, Robin Thicke, John Legend, and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles — to each sing with a pair of lowly civilians in the hopes of one normal winning a record contract. The show isn't called Trios though, that's a little too kinky for wholesome America, so the stars only sing with one of their chosen people at a time. The other judges score the performances, and people are eliminated one by one.

Yeah, it looks like it's all up to the Superstars (that is their official name!) to do all the deciding? Sucks to be you, America. (Wait a second...) Some already suspect that this means the show is rigged, but what sort of evil television producers would ever do such a thing?? As it stands after the first two-hour episode, both of Kelly Clarkson's singers are in the bottom two. Whoops! She's got time to recover, though, as no one will be eliminated for two weeks.

On the whole, the show suffers from the same arbitrary feeling that The Voice does. We trust there was a big casting search, we saw brief late-stage snippets of it last night, but compared to the long, brutal, but wholly necessary chosen-from-thousands slog of American Idol, the random arrival of previously unseen finalists just doesn't stoke much passion. Obviously if we end up watching this every week we'll get invested, but the initial experience feels a bit forced. Americans are easily swayed folks, tell us what to like and we often will, but c'mon, at least take us out to a few dinners before asking us to hop into bed with some random singer.

Adding to the ginned-up vibe is the way the Superstars are treated. They all sit on big white pleather thrones — the innocent, heavenly antipodes of The Voice's blood-red spaceship captain's chairs — while their contestants, joining them in little corrals called Superstar Lounges, sit on simple benches (or something). The cameras frequently cut to the Superstars' stagey, mugging reactions to whatever warmed-over singing is happening on stage, while the "we're all celebrities here" post-performance banter is inane on the good end and embarrassing, season-three-of-Idol gay panic stuff on the bad. The show's host, former MTV veejay Quddus, brings nothing to the table but a kind of chuckling, blandly inoffensive cool-dude shtick that one hopes will get looser as the series progresses. Meanwhile, Robin Thicke and Jennifer Nettles stand out as the cheesier of the two celebrities. Nettles' dancing and arm throwing during performances is the worst kind of pretend (she's awfully corny while performing, too), while Thicke is doing a desperate cool cat Adam Levine impersonation. (Which isn't to say that Adam Levine is cool, far from it, but in the context of the show, he's the cool one.) Kelly Clarkson is as likable as ever, while John Legend seems the most thoughtful and not-sure-about-this-whole-thing-yet. (He was a late replacement for Lionel Richie, who dropped out due to personal reasons, probably having to do with stopping to think about the whole thing for like two seconds.)

And how are the lowly mouth-breathing regulars? Oh, they're all fine. Lots of milquetoast wedding band-style singing. Nothing edgier than some pink hair, really. The current top-placer is a guy named J Rome who was picked by Jennifer Nettles, and he's certainly a competent, attractive singer. My favorite of the night was Nettles' other pick, a husky and vaguely pompadoured fellow named John Glossen, who wailed out a pretty rendition of Sugarland's "Stay" (all the songs sung last night were from the Superstars' own catalog — that'll change in the coming weeks, though). On the other end, one of Kelly Clarkson's picks, the aforementioned pink-haired girl, trembled and underwhelmed on "Stronger." But there really were no huge flops last night, nor any grand successes. It was just a lot of nice-ish singing all wrapped up in the aggrandizement of four celebrities. Enjoy, America!

Duets might be worth checking in on every once in a while, but it doesn't quite seem like appointment viewing. It will be interesting to see which of the Superstars is debased first by having both of their partners sent home, but they probably won't let that happen for a while. Nah, this show is probably too gummy and corporate to let anything too exciting happen. Welcome to summertime.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.