Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How #TheVoice is Getting Laryngitis

As I said in my first thoughts about The Voice, there was so much to like about the blind auditions that took up the first four hours, even as someone who's usually not a fan of talent competitions. I can really boil it down to three things: the premise that the show would be "all about the voice," the general air of positivity and the friendly competitiveness among the coaches. Five weeks later, we're into the live shows, and I think I can sadly say that all three of those assets have either been abandoned or are now actually working against the show.

The "All About the Voice" Premise. The blind auditions worked on several levels, but perhaps the most important was how elegantly they sold this idealistic premise of "all about the voice," something oft-mentioned on the show. The coaches/judges have to pick their teams based solely on THE VOICE (OK, and the crowd reaction, I guess). Very simple but effective. Now, I'd be naive if I had any real expectation this would be fully maintained. The moment we saw the first face of the first contestant, knowing that America would eventually be voting, it should've been clear that (as in any talent competition) physical appearance was going to play a role. But what I didn't expect was that the live performances would do nothing less than completely spit in said premise's face. There was some pretty elaborate choreography going on, a level of theatrics that in many cases (and unfortunately most obviously in the very first performance of the night, Raquel Castro) completely drowned out THE VOICE.
  • The Fix? Obviously the big productions can be scaled back, but I'm not sure that's what America really wants. From a "game" standpoint, I'd really like to see the show embrace the blind audition premise farther into the game. How about something resembling "blind" live shows? Again, I don't think America wants this. It may fit the so-called premise of this particular show, but it sort of flies in the face of the appeal of this general type of show.
Air of Positivity. I wonder if this tied into recent American Idol developments. There seem to have been some points scored in favor of the "anti-Cowell" sentiment lately, with American Idol's change to a much less negative judging panel almost miraculously producing the show's healthiest ratings season in several years. The Voice also debuted quite well and grew in week two with a panel of four really nice people. My beef is not really about the entertainment value of nice guys vs. Simon Cowell; different people have different opinions on that. There's a more objective problem in all the positivity: why even have "experts" at all if they can't help you separate anyone from anyone else? When everyone's nice to everyone, the forward movement in the game (America voting out people) almost comes across chaotic. In the audition phase (both on Idol and The Voice) that isn't so much an issue because even when they're being nice, they're still acting. They're eliminating people by not pressing the button and swiveling their chairs. And the actions speak a lot louder than the words. But in this part of the game, the judges are basically done acting. Yet these four seem absolutely terrified of dropping criticisms on people not on their team. Everyone was great; now go vote, America!
  • The Fix? This one's tough because the "coaching" aspect is kinda built into the premise of the show, so you can't just bring in a Simon Cowell and start tearing everybody down every song. But I actually felt like these guys really wanted to make some suggestions but were holding back to adhere to this mutual code. I have a feeling if one of the coaches got a little more honest, the others would follow suit, and nobody would be terribly hurt by it. Will that happen? I hope so. I actually think the brisk pace of the show (which I like as a viewer, see below) sort of hurts in this area, because there's just not that much time to soak in suggestions and make meaningful improvements. These guys have just three live performances each, and almost everyone who has noticeable problems is gonna be out with half the field getting culled each time. So maybe the "mentoring" thing will actually be handled more in-depth once the show moves at a snail's pace in future seasons (even if I probably won't be watching).
Coaches' Chemistry/Competitiveness. What was particularly impressive about the blind audition shows was how appealing all four of the coaches were and how great their friendly yet competitive chemistry was. As I've said on a couple occasions, I like the Shark Tank vibe. So that should carry over across the whole season, right? Well, not really. For one, we're going from pre-taped to live, and it seemed from last night that Christina Aguilera in particular might have been getting a really "good edit." She was much more obnoxious in the live show than in anything previous. Maybe some of that will get toned down as they get more accustomed to being live. But the real problem I see is the sense of "competitiveness." It was really organic in the blind audition shows because they actually were competing, often battling each other to recruit promising talent to their teams. But the show is not set up to keep the competition going. In fact, there are only two times the coaches ever actually compete: blind auditions and the final vote. So there are seven straight weeks where a lot of stuff is happening, a lot of people are being knocked out, but none of it is "inter-squad." It's all "intra-squad," whittling away all the teams equally. There are no victories, no defeats, no competitions among the coaches, which makes all that chippiness seem much less organic and much more like some shtick.
  • The Fix? I think this show is gonna have to be willing to get its hands messy with teams of uneven sizes. As is right now, it'd be like Survivor eliminating all the challenges for tribal immunity or tribal reward yet the players all continue to blather on about "tribal unity." We can't go for 70% of the duration of the show acting like it's some epic competition among the coaches without ever having any competition among the coaches. I'm actually optimistic this could get better in future seasons, because four eliminations a week would simply end the season too quickly.
Now, there are still some things to like that the show can't kill. There are some pretty darn good performers on this show (Dia in particular was great last night, and I also like Beverly's energy and a couple of the other guys coming up next week), so at this point I think I'm invested enough with just three weeks left that I'll see it to the end.

Probably the biggest positive from a "game" standpoint is how brisk the pace is; this week will cut from 16 to 12, and while things aren't 100% clarified yet, my assumption is that we go from 12 to 8 the next week, then 8 to 4, leaving one member of each team, and then from 4 to 1. As someone who can't stand the typical talent competition filler, that's pretty refreshing in this world of one elimination a week. The problem is that this is the one thing that I can almost guarantee will be changed next season. Season one of this show will ultimately run just ten weeks; even if they wait till the Super Bowl to launch season two (and I think they may actually start it earlier), that's gonna be probably about 3.5 months; more like fifteen weeks. And none of those will be one hour a week like four of these will have been. So everything's gonna slow down. That's good for blind auditions (those were actually a bit rushed through, and I see no reason to rush through what is far and away the best part) but probably bad for a lot of other stuff.

Will it get better? As I've maintained, I think future seasons are going to be a lot different. This was all slapped together pretty quickly, and as the season progresses that's becoming more obvious to me. Future seasons are probably going to be asked to take up a lot more real estate. For a couple of my criticisms, I actually think that might bode well. The "mentoring" thing might resonate more when there are lots of week-to-week, live-show-to-live-show adjustments. Maybe having more weeks will allow them to design a more intricate "game" among the four teams beyond "whittle down the teams evenly till the final vote, declare a winner."

Then again, there will be a lot more filler, probably enough to drive me away as a viewer. I tend to think talent competitions are much more "character"-driven than "game"-driven, so they may not bother with these idealistic principles as much as I'd like them to. If the ratings stay as amazing as they've been thus far, why not just spit out some blind auditions followed by a rough Idol clone every year? Especially in the case of the "all about the voice" premise, I think really fixing that requires taking a hatchet to a lot of the glitz and glamour, and that seems like a dubious business decision with this kind of show. I have a feeling we'll probably just stop hearing about that premise pretty soon. The other stuff? As always, we'll see...!

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