ABC has been hyping Duets like crazy in recent weeks. So is the show, which debuted Thursday night, engrossing enough to make everyone forget that they really could use a break from singing competitions at this point?
Early verdict: probably not. Duets seems to be as much about the celebrity singers as it is the newcomers, perhaps even more so. For all its weaknesses, American Idol knows how to sell personalities and create storylines, but the Duets debut told us almost nothing about the eight novices we were introduced to. Also, it’s still a mystery as to exactly what the rules are, or what the competition is going to look like going forward.
The four stars – Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Robin Thicke, and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles – held (presumably brief) one-on-one auditions in cities where they happened to have business, typically narrowing the competition down to two “maybes” before choosing one of the newbies to duet with them on one of their hits. This process was repeated in the second hour, accounting for the eight performances.
Coming off a season of nonsensical judging on Idol, it was heartening to hear the professionals giving serious thought to how the voices of the wannabes would mesh with their own. Legend even told one prospect to please not do runs and riffs on his “Ordinary People,” reminding him that he had written that melody and was thus pretty fond of it. Of course, other considerations came into play as well: one has to think that the main reason Thicke chose a woman named Olivia Chisholm was her strong resemblance to his wife, Paula Patton.
After the duets, the stars who didn’t sing would say a few nice things (I don’t recall a single even mildly negative comment all night), and then give a secret rating of the performance. The eight duet partners were then listed in order of rank. Was it a coincidence that the two partners of Clarkson, the biggest star on the show, also had the two lowest ratings? A little jealousy at work, perhaps?
But as near as we could see, the rankings Thursday were only for fun – no one was eliminated, and there was no indication that the numbers carry over from week to week (apparently there will be live shows with public voting eventually, and the winner will get some sort of record deal). It’s hard to see how a few more weeks of this is going to make for interesting viewing, especially if the secret judging continues to make little or no sense. Thicke’s duet with a woman named Alexis Foster was nearly unlistenable, and yet it got the third-highest score of the night.
Early indications are that Nettles, the one in the bunch who is most used to working collaboratively on stage, is going to have an edge on the others. She seems to really care, and is a natural duet partner in a way the competition isn’t. But Duets is a work in progress at best.