Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why "The Sing-Off" is the best reality competition talent show

We've watched our share of reality shows on TV. Over the years, we've watched Survivor (several seasons, though we dropped it last year and didn't miss it a bit); Big Brother (maybe half a season… not so much); Last Comic Standing (loved it, but it's inconsistently scheduled); America's Got Talent (we catch this one fairly regularly, though we tire quickly of the bickering and prating between the judges); The Voice (a newcomer that we enjoyed, though it was pretty predictable toward the end); and The Sing-Off (I think we've seen every episode of this one). I've also seen episodes of American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance?, Fear Factor, and probably a couple of others. I'm sure there are a lot of these that I/we haven't even heard of, and more that are on the way. It seems TV producers have devised a fairly inexpensive genre of programming that sells.

Of these, my favorite by far is The Sing-Off. It is musical talent competition show, wherein the singing groups are all a cappella— that is, they sing with no accompaniment other than their voices and bodies, and each other. It is hosted by Nick Lachey (from the boy-band, 98 Degrees, so even the host is a group-harmony singer), and the judges are Ben Folds (formerly of Ben Folds Five, a spookily-smart and highly-trained musician), Nicole Scherzinger (lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls), and Shawn Stockman (one of the boyz in Boyz II Men). All of the production staff are also people with a cappella backgrounds. Compared to the other talent-oriented competition reality shows, I think The Sing-Off is the best, by far.

So, why do I think The Sing-Off is the best talent-styled show going? Here's a handful of reasons:
  • No embarrassing auditions. In so many of the other shows, part of the popularity— perhaps even the main draw for some— are the early audition episodes, wherein someone who hopes to be a viable contender is mercilessly exposed to be far less talented than is necessary. While I recognize and understand the morbid way that this is entertaining ("like watching a train wreck" is the accurate expression, I believe), I am always disappointed and dismayed at how much we love to revel in the embarrassment of others (and/or the cruel treatment they inevitably receive from one or more of the judges). Some will say, "they NEED to be told that they stink" which may be true, and it's too bad they didn't have a friend who loved them enough to keep them from the embarrassment of national TV— but while they may "need" it, we don't "need" to see it. The Sing-Off clearly has held auditions of some sort, and there are references made to them on occasion, but we are spared them; instead, they simply present the top performers from the auditions, which still leaves plenty of room for favorites to emerge and healthy competition to arise.
  • No rude judges. Again, it seems like the "hook" for many of the talent shows is the showcase of a single brash, know-it-all judge (often British!) who is give free reign to be as merciless to the contestants as he wants to be. This summer's America's Got Talent is the epitome of this, so much that the rude one has become the target of vitriolic distaste from not only the contestants, but the other judges and even the host. On The Sing-Off, to the contrary, the judges are all polite and strive to find something to affirm in every act, even when they have words of critique. They also clearly enjoy one another's company, which only helps the general tenor of the show. (To its credit, The Voice also demonstrated this, as well as the next one.)
  • No pointless judges. Most of the shows I've watched seem to have a judge whose purpose is uncertain. They aren't recognized authorities in the talent industry, but perhaps are there as a pretty face; alternatively, they may actually be someone who has "made it" talent-wise, yet their "judging" seldom, if ever, approaches anything of real substance. At best, they serve as the counter-balance to the jerk-judge, providing the always-affirming, over-considerate voice that loves everyone simply for exercising the bravery to audition. The Sing-Off has a balanced panel of judges— all three are accomplished musicians who are quick to offer intelligent insight into what worked and what didn't in the performances they see. There are almost always words of criticism, but they are presented gently and considerately; there are also always words of affirmation and encouragement. Each judge has their own style and personality that comes through in their judging, but none of them are rude OR pointless.
  • No divas. I don't think I've ever seen a group win one of the other competition shows— even if there have been groups competing. It has always been a single, solo act that wins the show (unless you count the ventriloquist dummy in 2008's America's Got Talent). Maybe I'm wrong; let me know in the comments if you know of a group that has won one of these. Of course, a solo act cannot win The Sing-Off, because everyone competing is part of a group. This is refreshing, because it displays a dependence on teams and groups that is noticeably absent in most of American culture apart from elite professional athletics (and even there we might tend to follow individual stars and players rather than the whole team).
  • Fair competition. I don't have a problem with the fact that a radio-pop styled singer (almost) always wins American Idol— but I feel like the country singer or the folk musician who wants to enter that competition doesn't get a fair shake. Likewise, when America's Got Talent's host turns the voting to the public and says, "who has the most talent?" I need to know what the criteria are to pick between a dance group, a classical/opera-styled singer, a performance artist, and a guitar-playing folk-rock singer. Is it fair to say that one of these has "more talent" than the others, because they got the most votes? With The Sing-Off, it is a single style of singing (yet it transcends genre), which means it is far easier to know what the criteria are. It's simply a fair competition.

Remember, I'm speaking strictly of talent competition shows, so Survivor and others don't fit into this comparison. And, to be fair, there are other shows that fit most of the above (Last Comic Standing comes to mind), though not all of them.

One more disclaimer: The Sing-Off has, for the first two "seasons," been on for only a matter of weeks (around Thanksgiving and Christmas, generally). They've announced that it will show for season three starting in September— much earlier than they have begun in the past. So, we may see some of these erode (like the auditions aspect) this year. But I hope not.

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