photo: ABCABC's new singing competition, "Duets," seems to have all the right ingredients for TV success. I mean, it's got a primetime slot on a big-three network, a fancy-schmancy set shrouded in dry-ice smoke and laser-beams, a host amusingly named Quddus, and KELLY FRIGGIN' CLARKSON. So "Duets" should offer double the pleasure, double the fun, right? And yet, when I watched last Thursday's series premiere, I was largely underwhelmed and unimpressed. At the time, I chalked it up to overall singing-show fatigue ("Duets" premiered the very day after "American Idol's" finale--so not the smartest move on ABC's part). But now that I've watched episode 2 of "Duets," I'm beginning to think that something just doesn't quite click with this show. It has its moments, sure, but it's no "Idol" or "The Voice." Heck, it's not even "P. Diddy's Starmaker."
I suspect that Lionel Richie--who was supposed to be a judge on "Duets," but was replaced at the last minute by John Legend after bowing out due to "personal scheduling conflicts"--is pretty happy with his decision right about now. And now yet another cast member has left "Duets": Contestant Johnny Gray is already gone after just one episode, "due to unforeseen circumstances." (A contact for ABC told Yahoo! Music "he had to leave for personal reasons," although, if you read Johnny's Twitter, it sure doesn't seem like he went away voluntarily.) Whatever the reason for Johnny's sudden departure, this switch-up forced Johnny's coach, John Legend, to do yet another lightning-round casting this week. Sheesh. What is going on with this damn show?
There are a few reasons for the show's semi-failure to launch, I think. So before I get into this week's specific performances, I'll recap what's wrong with the series in general, and what I think producers can tweak next season--if there is a next season, which, let's face it, there probably won't be--to help get the show on track. Come on, ABC! Kelly deserves better than this!
The Audition Process (Or Lack Thereof) - On shows like "Idol," "The Voice," and "The X Factor," we start with dozens or even hundreds of aspiring singers, and over the course of a few weeks, they're whittled down to the creme de la creme, the best of the best. So by the time we get down to only eight contestants, we've got a strong bunch, and we're deeply invested. But "Duets" only started with eight singers (or nine, if you count Johnny Gray's replacement)--and that's all we're gonna get, all season long. Moreover, it was never made too clear exactly how Kelly and her fellow judges recruited these random eight hopefuls. Kelly yanked a couple onstage at a concert, a la Bruce Springsteen asking Courteney Cox to dance in that old '80s video. Robin Thicke picked someone he met in church. Jennifer Nettles got a referral through her nanny. John Legend plucked a couple people offline. So these contestants sort of feel foisted upon us, and frankly, I have my doubts as to how extensive the judges' talent searches actually were. Seriously, THIS was the best they could find in all of America? A country in which thousands of people queue up for hours in parking lots to audition for Simon Cowell? Which brings me to my next complaint...
The "Amateurs" - While none of the contestants on "Duets" are lousy singers, and some of them (like Jennifer's mighty-voiced partner, John Glosson) are actually truly skilled, none of them seem like stars to me. In fact, before this week's episode aired, I'd already forgotten all their names and what any of them sounded or looked like. In a market already overcrowded with singing shows featuring some really stellar talent, none of the "Duets" singers can begin to compare to the "Voice" and "Idol" contestants of this year. Or last year. And that's a major problem. But there's a bigger problem...
The "Pros" - Kelly, John, Jennifer, and Robin, who duet with their amateur partners every week, are Just. Too. Good. They really do make their hapless contestants look like amateurs. I assume the "Duets" producers thought it'd be cute to see newbies perform with superstars, but these onstage pairings only emphasize the contestants' weaknesses. And some of the duos simply aren't well-matched, like country star Jennifer pairing up with R&B man J Rome. Singing solo, these contestants may have had a chance to impress. But singing next to Kelly Clarkson? They're simply doomed.
Robin Thicke - He's just trying waaaaay too hard. His constant egging on of the live studio audience makes me think he would have been better suited to the job of commercial-break warm-up guy, and his smarmy game-show-host/used-car-salesman demeanor consistently irritates, as do his weird sandwich metaphors. I'd always thought this blue-eyed-soul crooner was kind of sexy, but every time he opens his mouth to speak instead of sing, another little bit of his sex appeal dies for me. (Plus, his speaking voice sounds way too much like his dad Alan's, and that weirds me out.) I seriously doubt "Duets" is going to give Robin the career boost he'd presumably hoped for. Thicke is just laying it on too thick, and he needs to relax. But maybe he's just going through...wait for it...growing pains?
Quddus - He's annoying too, and not just because I can't pronounce his name. All is forgiven, Steve Jones. All is forgiven.
The Scoring - The public voting will open up eventually, but not until week six. Until then, the duets will be secretly scored by the judges, something that makes absolutely so sense. Kelly, John, Jennifer, and Robin all want to win, I assume--so why would they highly rate the opposing teams? Of course they wouldn't. So this silly scoring system is how we ended up with average soul singer J Rome atop the leaderboard last week, instead of John Glosson. And that's how frontrunner judge Kelly ended up with both of her contestants in the bottom two.
Le sigh. Well, I'm still watching this show, if only for Kelly, or if only for the fact that every episode promises another show-salvaging group performance from the superstar judges. (Kelly and Robin quite thrillingly opened the show with the Jagger & Jackson jam "State Of Shock" this week.) As for the contestants' performances this week? Here's how those went:
JOHN LEGEND'S DUETS
Bridget Carrington - Bridget was one of last week's more promising contenders, when she teamed with John on his own smoking song, "Tonight (Best You Ever Had)," and exhibited both sass and class. But when John and Bridget did the Aretha Franklin/George Michael classic "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me" this week, they both fell flat. Bridget is no Aretha, and John, while fantastic in his own way, is no George. Together, they sapped some of the vivaciousness and triumph out of the song, sadly. I know I wasn't waiting for this.
Meleana Brown - After the abrupt and mysterious disappearance of Johnny Gray, John swiftly swapped in former "Idol" contestant Meleana--switching from Gray to Brown, if you will. Johnny's exit may have been a blessing in disguise--John would have looked pretty silly singing "Endless Love" with Johnny, right? Meleana was supersharp in places--almost painfully so at the end of her song--but she did okay for someone who'd had so little prep time. It's still difficult for me to imagine her winning this show, but her scores did surprisingly put her at the top of the leaderboard, so maybe her "Cinderella story" will come true. But I still want to know the REAL Johnny Gray story...
KELLY CLARKSON'S DUETS
Jordan Meredith - Kelly made the odd mistake of picking THE two most inexperienced contestants on this entire series, and last week, Jordan's lack of experience totally showed, especially next to Kelly. This week, the pink-haired, very green contestant took on Pink's "Misery," and she fared a little better. She still seemed nervous, but her soulful voice was a much better fit for this ballad, and her vocals blended nicely with Kelly's (even if Kelly did, of course, totally outsing her). Jordan still has a way to go, but she's definitely on the way up, so it seems like Kelly is whipping her into shape.
Jason Farol - Jason received the lowest scores last week, even though he definitely wasn't the worst of the bunch. This week he and Kelly took on the behemoth of Mariah Carey and Brian McKnight's "Whenever You Call," and it was totally The Kelly Show. I almost forgot Jason was there. There's something about Jason that is just so lovable, and that quality could take him far once the public voting opens, but his nerves keep getting the better of him. (John Legend said this week that it seemed like Jason was "looking to Kelly for approval" and "the umbilical cord was still attached.") Jason needs to get over his shock and awe whenever he's onstage with his idol Kelly, or he's done for. However, I really do think he's the only "Duets" contestant with genuine star quality, so I'm rooting for him.
JENNIFER NETTLES' DUETS
John Glosson - John was, hands-down, the best contestant last week, singing a stunning "Stay" with Jennifer and sounding like one of the pros. But when Jennifer picked "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for him this week, things got amateurish real fast. This performance, while well-sung, was just so old-fashioned, so cruise-shippy, so uncool. It made the corny group performances on "American Idol" seem hip. Even Kelly called it "hokey" and "cheesy," while John Legend said it was "a little too Broadway" and Robin agreed that it was the wrong song choice. I'm not sure what Jennifer was thinking here.
J Rome - Okay, Jennifer is clearly insane. "You're The One That I Want"? From Grease? I never really had J Rome pegged as the Danny Zuko type. This was kind of fun, especially in a night filled with mostly sleepy ballads, and J had a good attitude, completely embracing the cheese. That made me like him a little more, even if the song wasn't the best showcase for his vocal chops. But come on, this was just so silly. The most entertaining part about it was the stunned expressions on the other judges' faces while they watched.
ROBIN THICKE'S DUETS
Olivia Chisholm - Everyone keeps talking about how Olivia and Robin share such raw, hot sexual chemistry, but last week when they dueted on Robin's "Lost Without U," I thought their interaction seemed forced, and even a little bit squirmy and icky. This week, doing the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway classic "Where Is The Love," a less overtly sexy song, they seemed a little more natural together. But I was still squirming during this performance, waiting for it to end, because I still didn't think their voices were a good match at all. Olivia's vocals were just very thin--she's no powerhouse diva--and combined with Robin's whispery tone, the end result was just a blah and unsubstantial. The whole duet just seemed to disappear into the ether.
Alexis Foster - Alexis, another one of my "ones to watch" in this competition, took on the Tammy Terrell role in her duet with Robin, "You're All I Need To Get By." Kelly thought Robin and Alexis seemed disconnected, but I thought Alexis seemed much more comfortable this week (last week, she came across as flustered and awkward), and her vocals were buttery-smooth. This wasn't perfect, but it showed her potential, and I think Alexis could be the "Duets" dark horse.
So at the end of the evening, the leaderboard ranking was as follows: J Rome and Meleana Brown tied for first place (really?), Bridget Carrington, John Glosson, Jordan Meredith, Alexis Foster, Jason Farol, and Olivia Chisholm. Next week, two contestants will be up for elimination for the first time this season, which might make things a little more interesting. But right now, I'm not really invested enough to care who goes home.
But I will keep watching! I will do it for Kelly!