Rarely have I been so pleased to be so pummeled by reality-TV stagecraft.
The Voice (NBC) is a horrifically entertaining vocal competition produced by Mark Burnett—the purveyor of Survivor, the master of The Apprentice, and thus a virtuoso at crafting scenes of noisy gamesmanship and interpersonal combat. The series' Tuesday-night debut made good on Burnett's promise to improve on the style of aging American Idol. If you crunch its Nielsen numbers, you will find yourself admiring a hit. This is no small matter. Many fates hang in the balance. Yes, there's the winner to consider—the triumphant warbler destined to sign a recording deal—and also the B-list afterlives of the most relentless runners-up. Further, the success of The Voice has implications for the career arcs of its celebrity judges and of its host, Carson Daly, the proto-bro now finally ready for prime time. Larger issues at stake include the direction of a genre, the tone of prime-time television, the relative dimness of the future of the record industry, the continued viability of NBC Entertainment, and the unique-visitor statistics of all Web sites trafficking in Christina Aguilera cheesecake, especially those willing to deal in up-skirt screen grabs.
Aguilera is one of the show's four judges—no, excuse me, not judges, "coaches." "It's not about the judging. Its about the journey," says Cee-Lo, one of Aguilera's colleagues. The soul brother and the undulating diva are joined by a good-looking country guy named Blake Shelton and by Adam Levine, the affable person accountable for the bombastic simpering of Maroon 5. Here, they're all playing nicely at moguldom and at mentoring, professing a commitment to nurturing talent and using the term "support system" in a way that splits the difference between the jargon of self-help and the language of networking. In the early episodes, each star selects singers to join his or her team. Down the road, intramural battles will give way to a war of all against all.
The contestants—the "artists"—have big voices, big dreams, big inclinations to transform every song they interpret into an anthem. On Tuesday, a folk singer smeared Nirvana's "Come as You Are" into a kind of P.J. Harvey torch song, and a country crooner went at Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" as if he had, in fact, been convicted of a capital crime and was pouring all his hopes for clemency into the chorus. The artists wear very big grins in the interview segments, where, lovingly probed by Carson, they heartily distribute little clichés about the importance of never letting go of those big dreams, and The Voice is very slick in packaging their big juicy back stories.
The roster of auditioners included a daughter of immigrants, a reformed drunk with four kids, a day-dream girl with an Effie White figure, someone whose status as an adoptee was central to his narrative, someone who played the old living-in-my-car card, and several persons attending carefully to Philoctetes' wounds. A lovely girl named Xenia, just Xenia, talked about overcoming shyness as if it were a long-odds fight against a terminal disease. We have thus far met a 31-year-old who might be looking at her last shot, a 41-year-old who might be looking at her last shot, and a 56-year-old who was looking at her first shot, which in turn looked away. We have thus far met two bald women proudly messing around with ideas about gender and performance. The casting is pluralistic, and everyone's both celebrating herself and the idea of big-tent crossover stardom, as if Burnett had not imported this programming format from Holland but instead hired Walt Whitman and Lady Gaga to collaborate on a treatment.
The controlling gimmick of these early episodes is that the coaches' backs are turned when the artists begin the numbers. Never before has a show simultaneously insisted that the music is the only thing that counts and that image is everything, and the negative capability is really something. Seldom do the issues around a performer's incentives and motivations get literalized with such intensity. Rarely have I been so pleased to be so pummeled by reality-TV stagecraft.
You watch the aspirant pouring himself into his microphone with an excess of force, and you watch the celebrities listening: teasing with toe taps, nodding along and trying to get into it, waiting to be moved to press the big red button—the "I WANT YOU" button—that will send their futuristic thrones swiveling around to face the music. Aguilera is very good at these moments. She puts her face through catty contortions and grudging grimaces. She guides a jeweled hand to hover above the button and below her décolletage. And once she has swiveled, she flirts and charms and reasons as she attempts to "sign" the artist to her team. She asked a country singer to remove his hat. Also, his pants. "Just kidding," she qualified.
Cee-Lo rivals her for cheekiness and punch. The thrust of his pitch to one young woman was a highly sincere, deeply pleading "Oh, baby!" Schmoozing with a folk-tinged duet act—a married couple—he was required to address their request that he "name something that you see in us that you can bring out." He promised to move them into a multimedia Sonny-and-Cher kind of space, which you must admit is more persuasive that the old Ike-and-Tina pitch. On The Voice, the suspense of a blind taste test flows into a psychodrama akin to that of choosing teams for dodge ball and then into a tribute to the art of the sale. Careerism is central to its narrative, and one really cannot knock the hustle.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.