"The Voice" Closes Its Eyes And Takes On "American Idol"

So: The Voice. The big challenge. American Idol has been the dominant ratings force in American TV for a full decade now, but none of the other networks has really managed to do much with that show's format, which seems like a relatively easy thing to steal. (Or they haven't made a big singing-competition show out of the format, anyway; Dancing With the Stars is the same show in a lot of ways.) The Voice is a last-ditch shot on the part of a desperate NBC, and it sure seems like they spent a lot of money, time, and thought on this thing. (God knows anyone who's watched Community over the last few months has had to deal with nonstop ads for the show.) They also got themselves a pretty impressive roster of guest coaches.

Christina Aguilera is obviously the big get here, even after all the disastrous career decisions she's made lately (biting Gaga and then claiming she'd never heard of Gaga; attempting to make a megabudget electroclash album nine years too late; Burlesque). Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, and Blake Shelton are all pretty famous too, and unlike 2/3 of the current American Idol judging lineup, they've all scored hit songs relatively recently. What interests me more about them is that they've all had a hand in at least one awesome thing--in descending order of awesomeness, Soul Food, marrying Miranda Lambert, "Beautiful," and the chorus of Kanye West's "Heard 'Em Say".

After one episode, it's not immediately apparent how they'll all work out as TV characters; they seem like a radically mixed bag so far. Xtina babbles incoherently, Cee Lo babbles slightly more coherently in a lightspeed helium drawl that makes him sound like no other man on the planet, and Adam Levine comes off as a pretty normal and recognizable human being when he's not doing deeply off-putting celebratory dances. The real revelation so far is Shelton, who doesn't play into the theatrical side of the show too much and who seems to be having fun with it. He also has better comic timing than anyone involved in the show--especially Carson Daly.

Carson Daly, who's hosting this thing, is a big, big problem. I can't believe I'm even saying this, but Carson is no Seacrest. He's not even a Brian Dunkleman. His rumpled leather jacket looks fucking lame next to Seacrest's impeccably tailored suits, and he high-fives contestants' families with all the grace and fluidity of a confused rhino. Thus far, his main role is to loom too close to people in the green room and to make everyone uncomfortable. He is a massive liability.

The show patterns itself after Idol just enough for it to trumpet its differences as a big deal. It doesn't have judges; it has coaches. Idol makes us sit through weeks of excruciating auditions and supposed-to-be-funny rejects; The Voice tosses us right in and starts with a select group of talented people. Idol makes a huge point of telling its contestants' backstories; The Voice barely pays them lip service. The judges on Idol criticize contestants' looks (mostly just telling them they look great, but still); the coaches on The Voice don't even get to see what the contestants look like until they render a verdict.

The rules of the show, which involve singers ending up on coaches' teams, are a bit overly complicated, but the show establishes the parameters early enough, and it's not hard to follow. It is, however, not particularly compelling to watch these coaches lightly rib each other about who ends up on which team. Also, the video montages are just bad. "Singing is kind of like talking, but from, like, the deepest part of your heart." Thanks for the wisdom, random brunette lady! "Music and I are one." Thanks, guy in the hat! That, combined with the amateur-hour theme music ("This is the voice!"), the bad computer graphics, the weird pre-taped atmosphere, and Carson Daly's general presence combine to make the show feel just slightly off, like it's Canadian or something. American Idol has had years to develop a rhythm, and The Voice has a long way to go. But it's already an interesting experiment.

The show opened with a truly goofy and enjoyable little opening number, with all the judges singing Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and acting as a deeply silly impromptu band, Adam Levine singing while playing drums, Cee Lo wearing red sunglasses and a Misfits shirt. There was a big implicit message here: These are coaches who presumably know singing than certain iconic American Idol judges because they can actually sing, and Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson would be like fish flopping around onstage if anyone ever forced them to sing. And as a sent message, it actually worked, mostly because these four people all sounded completely different from each other while sounding pretty good on the song. (Actually, Cee Lo revealed right there that he probably has a thinner voice and less onstage charisma than any of the other four, which is funny, since he was the only one singing his own song. But I'm willing to cut that guy all the slack in the world, seeing as how he was part of maybe the greatest rap group of all time.)

Another shot fired at Idol: The first singer was Tarralyn Ramsey, who is--get ready for this--31 years old! What a decrepit fossil! Ramsey's very first sentence was about how this is her last shot at singing, and her placement as the first contestant seemed to have something to do with the fact that The Voice--unlike Idol--doesn't have age restrictions. Of course, the person writing this recap happens to be exactly 31 years old, so it felt pretty lame to have someone on the show talking about that number like it's infinity. (That might be more my problem than the show's, though.) Anyway, she sang a belty soul-gospel version of Faith Hill's "Breathe" and sounded legitimately awesome, and she ended up on Aguilera's team.

Patrick Thomas was this goofy little country kid in a giant hat, who admitted to being a nerd in high school. It wasn't exactly a shock. He sang Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying," which makes me think the Hill/McGraw couple will just own this show. He's obviously got a strong instrument, but he didn't exactly do a whole lot with it. He ended up with Blake Shelton, who, in one of the show's greatest moments, belly-laughed at all the coaches who didn't get him.

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