photo: ABCThe confetti had barely been swept up from the Season 11 "American Idol" finale floor before the original Idol, Kelly Clarkson, hit the airwaves with her own singing competition, ABC's "Duets," on Thursday night. Now she and her co-stars (John Legend, Robin Thicke, and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles) definitely have their work cut out for them, fighting the ongoing singing-competition fatigue that affected even "Idol's" ratings this year. (Thursday's "Duets" premiere was not a huge ratings smash.) But the show does offer enough of a twist on the old talent-show formula to possibly keep viewers engaged this summer.
I actually think the BIGGER challenge will be faced by Kelly's two amateur duet partners. I had previously assumed that being affiliated with Kelly, arguably the biggest pop star on the show, would be a huge advantage on "Duets"--but oddly, the opposite seems to be true, at least based on how this week's premiere turned out. But more on that in a bit.
First, a little about the overall concept of the show. Interestingly, the four celebrity judges aren't just judging, they're also competing with each other, hitting the stage with their two handpicked duet partners every week. So, that's cool. Again, you'd think this would give Kelly a major upper hand, since she's obviously the only judge with experience competing (and winning!) on a TV talent show. But by the end of this week's first episode, both of her singers were in the bottom two.
I think there were two reasons for this surprising development. First, the contestants on "Duets" really are supposed to be amateurs--with no long résumés of multiple major-label record deals or appearances on other reality programs--so all eight contestants were understandably intimidated to team up with their respective superstar partners. But Kelly's two partners admitted that they were SUPERFANS. Of course, you can't blame them--really, isn't everyone a Kelly Clarkson superfan?--but seriously, her two protégés practically burst into overjoyed tears when Kelly even glanced at them, or even got within 15 feet of them. So it was no wonder that they nearly experienced nervous breakdowns onstage when they had to trade vocal lines with her.
And then, really, I just have to say it: Very, very few singers--even professional ones, even famous ones--are as utterly awesome as Kelly friggin' Clarkson. So even though her two partners seemed to be perfectly capable vocalists, they just couldn't compare when they tried to keep up with Kelly this week. I suppose it was inevitable that they would be upstaged. Maybe they would have been better off singing with Robin Thicke?
Anyway, here are my other impressions about the judges' judging skills, before getting into the actual duet performances: Kelly is a natural on TV, and would have been a better cast addition to "The X Factor" than Demi or Britney. Jennifer Nettles is a little too bubbly, but she's very likable. Robin is a complete cheesebag and he's trying way too hard, which unfortunately considerably lessens his sex appeal. (Robin should never speak, only sing.) John Legend, who was thrown into the "Duets" mix at the last minute, is a little too chilled-out and quiet, and I kind of wish original judge Lionel Richie, whom John mysteriously replaced, hadn't quit the show. (And if Lionel had stayed, just think of all the fabulously corny Richie duets we would have heard this season! "Hello"! Such a missed opportunity!)
And now, for the eight "amateurs." Some of them impressed me this week. Others, not so much. But my overall verdict was that none of them were as good as the finalists on "Idol" or "The Voice" this year. So I suspect that the viewers who do continue to watch "Duets" will only do so because Kelly, Jennifer, Robin, and John are also singing. That will certainly be my motivation.
J Rome - "Tonight"
I think Jennifer outsang J Rome on this one, and I didn't think their voices blended that smoothly. (I'm surprised she picked an R&B crooner to be one of her partners, actually.) I just didn't sense any chemistry; it almost seemed like they happened to wander onto the same stage and start singing together by accident. But J Rome did showcase an undeniably solid set of pipes, so there's some potential here.
John Glosson - "Stay"
This was probably the strongest duet of the night. John's high-pitched, Rascal Flattsian tone worked so well with Jennifer's voice, and they really seemed to be singing to, not just alongside, each other. I was genuinely shocked that John didn't top the leaderboard after this, but maybe Jennifer's fellow judges felt threatened and tried to sabotage him with deliberately low scores.
Johnny Gray - "Ordinary People"
This was nice, but in a hotel-bar lounge act sort of way. It didn't get me excited or eager to hear more. And Johnny's a good singer, but he has to cool it with the distracting hand gestures and muggy faces. They're not helping his cause any.
Bridget Carrington - "Tonight (Best You Ever Had)"
Bridget exhibited a confidence onstage that belied her "amateur" status, and she shared a smokin' chemistry with John that just might have his jealous supermodel fiance sitting in on their future rehearsals, so she can keep an eye on them. Bridget definitely possesses a certain star quality (she's not a TOTAL amateur; she has a few songs on iTunes), and she could go far.
Olivia Chisholm - "Lost Without U"
I was totally unimpressed by this. Olivia's thin voice was not a good match for Robin's whispery falsetto, and I found their sexual chemistry very unconvincing--and forced, and even slightly icky and uncomfortable. This was my least favorite duet of the night. Olivia at least looked like a star, though.
Alexis Foster - "Magic"
Alexis appeared pretty awkward and arrhythmic onstage, but she had one of the strongest voices on the show, and she was in fact the only contestant that, I think, outsang her coach. She just has to work on her stage moves, and then she could win this thing.
Jason Farol - "Breaking Your Own Heart"
Jason was simply adorable, and I couldn't help but root for him, seeing how absolutely thrilled he was to be performing with Kelly. He was visibly nervous and shaky, but I thought he did a great job anyway. He certainly didn't deserve to be the LOWEST-RANKED singer of the night!
Jordan Meredith - "Stronger"
Self-described "borderline-obsessed" Kelly fangirl Jordan definitely let her nerves get the best of her. This duet started off with Jordan sounding way too croaky and low, improved midway through, but then went right off the rails at the end. Jordan therefore also ended up in the bottom two of the night's leaderboard--although, surprisingly, she scored higher than Jason, which made zero sense. Jordan was just totally out of her depth, and I don't think Kelly chose too wisely when she picked her for this show. But maybe if Jordan can get over the mind-blowing fact that she's singing with her own personal idol, and can get it together, she will rebound.
So at the end of the evening, the leaderboard ranking was as follows: J Rome, Johnny Gray, Alexis Foster, John Glosson, Olivia Chisholm, Bridget Carrington, Jordan Meredith, and Jason Farol. I definitely would have put John, Bridget, and even Jason a little higher up on the list than that, but hey, that's just me.
So what do you think? Can "Duets" survive in an already crowded reality TV marketplace? Can Jason and Jordan survive singing with one of the all-time greats? And can the judges' careers survive if this show tanks? Let me know.