Season in Review: The Voice
I’ll start with two confessions. One, I watch The Voice. Granted, you may have been able to figure that out already from the large photograph and title above this post. The second confession is that I don’t have cable. Yes, I blog about TV yet I don’t actually have the service that lets me view 75% of the shows we cover here. I end up relying on a lot of online streaming, family members’ DVRs and one generous friend who provides me with access to HBO Go. But that still doesn’t change the fact that when I get home from work every night, my immediate viewing options are limited to what is on the four major networks, PBS and, for some odd reason, a random country music channel.
The second confession is generally an explanation for the former. I get home from work and have nothing to do on Monday nights, so I find myself with some time to kill and The Voice, with its two hour run time, does a fine job of killing it. It’s a kind of TV viewing experience that I haven’t really attempted in quite some time, at least not during the 8PM-11PM ET prime time hours - watching something just as mindless fluff just because it was there, not because I sought it out.
And honestly, the experience I had with the second season of The Voice wasn’t that bad. I have very little to compare it to - I didn’t watch the first season of The Voice, and other than YouTube clips of auditions my only exposure to American Idol was one incredibly grating season finale several years ago (I remember Clay Aiken being there). But standing alone, The Voice is far from bad television. If not for its uneven format throughout the season, it could be genuinely good television - but regardless, it’s not that bad.
The unquestionable high point of the show is the first few weeks of contestant auditions, where the show’s most well-known gimmick of the spinning chairs is in play. There are two reasons for this, the first being that, unlike American Idol, everybody who gets on air has at least some talent. You don’t get obvious failures on the show just so the audience can laugh at them, everybody who makes it past the editing room is a Lake Wobegon style above-average performer.
The second is that the onus of competition in this round is placed on the judges, not the performers. This above everything else is what gives The Voice any intrigue. Instead of rooting for random kids plucked off the street, the show gives us a rooting interest in famous musicians (Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, Christina Agulera and Blake Shelton) as they try to assemble a winning “team” of artists.
The show is as much about which judge wins as which contestant wins, which adds a great deal more appeal to The Voice than a typical talent competition. Say you were a fan of RaeLynn, a contestant who was booted off in the first week of quarterfinal eliminations this season. Putting aside the fact that you clearly have no taste because RaeLynn was not very good, you still have a rooting interest in the show to cheer for her coach (Blake) to win with the rest of his team.
On top of that, the judge competition aspect allows for some genuinely entertaining interplay of personalities. If the American Idol judges get into a spat, it automatically feels somewhat contrived because they have nothing at stake in their game. On The Voice, if the judges get into an argument it could have huge repercussions on their team.
Just such a spat occurred in the finale episode, when Adam set up his finalist, Tony Lucca, to perform Hugo’s cover of the Jay-Z song “99 Problems” (Hugo was never credited onscreen, which was annoying, but it was clearly his arrangement). Christina took offense that Tony would perform a song she felt was derogatory toward women, Adam came back at her saying she didn’t understand the song is a metaphor, then when Christina pushed back Adam ripped off his jacket to unveil a pink glittery “Xtina” shirt, allowing him to have the final word in the argument and long magnanimous at the same time.
(This was only one example of the surprising clownish nature of Adam Levine, who as front man of Maroon 5 I was conditioned to hate. But of all the judges he has easily the best screen presence, and his disregard for bullshit, like straight up admitting to some of the show’s sketchy editing techniques, made me a genuine fan of his just a couple weeks into watching)
While neither Lucca nor Christina’s finalist, Chris Mann, ended up winning the competition, it seemed pretty clear that that moment swayed a great deal of voters away from “Team” Christina and toward “Team” Adam, and if Tony Lucca hadn’t flubbed the lines to “Harder to Breathe” later in the show, I bet he would have won. Instead, the under-the-radar contestant from “Team” Blake, Jermaine, rode R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” to victory.
But while the judges add a great deal to The Voice, after the auditions it really doesn’t feel like the show is able to completely run with its “team” concept, hence why I keep putting quotes around the word “team.” In reality, the teams are more like brackets, since the contestants only compete against their own teammates up until the final four. Shows like The X Factor take the team concept more to heart, and its a shame The Voice doesn’t, because when The Voice works, that is a core part of its appeal.
Of course, The Voice has other issues. The contestants’ song choices can get painfully boring. An Adele song seemed to pop up every freaking episode - now I like Adele, but it would be nice to see some goddamn variety. Mix that in with a collection of classic rock ballads and easy listening mainstays and the set list for The Voice is hardly groundbreaking (to the point where even a slight detour out of Top 40 Land, such as Jamal Rodgers’ performance of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, or Lindsay Pavao’s rendition of “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver, can feel revelatory). And then there’s Carson Daily, who is about as interesting of a host as a balsa wood replica of Chuck Woolery.
But then you have to keep in mind that The Voice is just meant to be fluff. It’s so fluffy that I have trouble comprehending that I just wrote about a thousand words about it. And it’s terrific at doing the job fluff is supposed to do: It helps you kill a couple hours on a Monday evening while you prep for four more days on the grind before the weekend. It’s the way most people who aren’t self-absorbed TV critics watch television, really. So here’s to The Voice - I’ll probably never watch another episode, but we had some good, if forgettable, times during cable exile.