I have a complicated relationship with reality television, and sometimes I fall into the trap of grouping it all together. Which is not really fair, because while there is good reality TV, bad reality TV, and garbage reality television, that is also true for scripted shows as well. More importantly, reality television provides valuable job infusion for the entertainment industry, and has proven it can be used to shine the light on subjects that scripted television either doesn’t want to do or has no reason to do. Plus, since reality television has to pull real people it does a much better job of portraying a more diverse cast than scripted television (this is a low bar, but one that reality TV has cleared). That said, as a writer, I just prefer to view scripted television, but that doesn’t mean I should simply ignore reality TV completely. Thus the roulette wheel deemed I should shine a spotlight on NBC’s The Voice. So journey back with me to the recent past to see if one of NBC’s gold standards was able to deliver a knock out performance, or if I sat through an hour and half of boring nothingness? Find out right after the rundown.
TV Roulette Catch-Up #2
The Voice Season 9, Episode 5 ‘The Blind Auditions Part 5’
October 5th, 2015
Have I Seen This Show Before?
If So, How Much?
I watched the very first episode of the show, and I have caught an episode here and there over the years, but never consistently watched it.
In this week’s Notes from the Kraken, I joked that it is a bit unbelievable that The Voice has won multiple Emmys. While I may not think this show is necessarily Emmy worthy, that does not mean it isn’t a fun show to watch. Part of this is because I am a huge of fan of music shows (scripted or non-scripted), so it is really hard for a show with singing to be a bad experience (of course Glee constantly challenged this notion, so there are limits). It probably also helps that as someone that can at least carry a tune and thus did my fair share of singing in my younger days I can delusionally believe I can relate to the contestants and understand their triumphs and struggles. That is why one the biggest things I have always respected about The Voice: that it treats all of its contestants with care and reverence.
I was a big fan of the early seasons of American Idol, and at first that show’s desire to present itself as a show where anyone off the street could walk in and have a shot at singing glory was appealing. Of course, this meant that there was a very real possibility that a contestant would be awful, but that was part of the charm of the show. As the show progressed, however, I slowly became more and more uncomfortable with the early episodes showcasing some truly horrific singers that were included on the show solely to be made fun of. Especially when some of them would actually be allowed to give their back stories, and the show became more engineered toward framing a lot of these people in the worst light possible. See, the dirty little secret about singing shows is that since tons of people apply, most of them don’t get to go in front of the TV judges, but instead are first somewhat vetted by various producers and such. For a show like American Idol it became especially necessary as the number of applicants soared over the years. This means there are gatekeepers deciding who gets to move on, and it just started to be especially cruel that bad singers were allowed to go onto television so they could get torn apart by the judges and so the audience could laugh at the fact that these people thought they could sing.
The Voice has always taken the opposite approach. I am sure there are plenty of bad singers that try to get onto The Voice, but the ones that make it to the blind auditions are actually good. Those that don’t get pick by the judges are treated kindly, given advice on what they can do to get better, and encouraged to try again. It makes the episodes just feel better, and it means that you have a reason to believe everyone can be picked, and can get invested in their backstory. Plus, backstories connected to good singers are so much more compelling than those connected to bad singers. The Voice realized it didn’t need bad performance gimmicks to present interesting television and has always been stronger for it.
On top of that, The Voice’s concept has always been fantastic. Every person is only judged by the quality of their voice, no matter what they look like. The feeling of true meritocracy this creates is freeing, and one of the starkest memories I have from watching the very first episode of The Voice in 2011 is when an attractive dude with a singing voice not quite up to snuff did not get picked, and a couple of the judges lamented that they didn’t get to see what he looked like. Weaker singers like that often get picked to advance further in singing shows, and then if they manage to make it to voting rounds catch fire because the audience only cares about how attractive these singers are. This has allowed The Voice to constantly showcase diverse singers of many different races, sizes, and ages. It has also allowed The Voice to protect certain singers by not letting them move forward if they aren’t ready. This is especially helpful for younger singers, because voices mature at different rates for different people. One 15-year-old might have a mature voice that is ready for a competition like this, while another may need more practice. By only hearing a contestant’s voice, the judges are able to make decisions that aren’t influenced by how telegenic a young singer might be. If a young voiced is pushed too soon, it can be disastrous for a singer, so it is always nice to see the judges caring more about the singer than how much the singer could help the show’s ratings.
Speaking of ratings, while The Voice is not the ratings juggernaut it used to be, it is still one of the more popular shows on television, and has been the lynchpin in bringing NBC back from the ratings oblivion it found itself in four years ago. NBC bet big on The Voice, even though at the time it looked like it overspent on once again trying to copy something other networks had been successful with. NBC built entire schedules around The Voice being successful, even when that looked like a crazy gamble, and then successfully utilized this strategy to launch The Blacklist and one of the few ratings bright spots this fall season, Blindspot. (we’ll see if these ratings can keep up, but for now Blindspot is the biggest new hit of the fall season, and not just because this season has one of the weakest groups of new shows in recent memory). Even as other singing shows have faded away, The Voice continues strong because it strives to showcase unique vocal talents and shine a light on people that the music industry has long ignored.
All of this means that The Voice is an excellently put together show designed to feel much more organic and intimate than other, similar shows. The manufactured side of this show is not without its downsides, however. First, there have always been rumblings about how amateur a lot of the singers on the show are. It seems every season or so there is a complaint about one of the contestants having an unfair advantage due to past fame (no matter how minor their role in the industry). Say what you will about American Idol, but when it first started it always did a good job at finding true diamonds in the rough that had no previous ties to the music industry. The problem, however, is that American Idol did its job too well. When the show originally came on it was the first of its kind, and had access to basically all the untapped potential singers in America, but as the seasons went by and more and more singing shows were produced, this talent pool slowly dried up. At this point, it is much harder to find singers above a certain age that have not given one of these shows a shot before or had some past experience with the music industry, so in order to get contestants over the age of, say, 25, it is necessary to bring in people that are looking for a second or third chance, even if that person has had real past success in the industry. To be fair, The Voice has always tried to present itself as a show looking for the best voice, no matter a person’s past. It wants people to audition that can actually win (or at least who seem like they can win) and that has always made its selection process trickier, so it doesn’t even try and hide the fact that it sometimes recruits people with existing musical connections.
Next, the very thing that makes this show’s concept fun to watch has often been the downfall of its winners. A lot of the winners have fallen off the face of the earth, and some might complain that even the more successful winners have never had the same kind of success as, say, American Idol winners Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood (which is really a super unfair standard, but it is what it is). The sad truth is that all the things The Voice values in its singers are often the opposite of what the actual music industry values. The Voice looks for nontraditional singers who often don’t easily slot into an industry that tends not to innovate. This is less out of some malicious intent and more because the music industry is huge and artists who find traction within it are truly the rare exceptions. There are so many talented singers in the world that if you can’t find a box to fit into, many times you will simply be pushed away, because it will be impossible to market you. Furthermore, just because a person can sing doesn’t mean they have the charisma to go along with it. X-Factor is one of the worse singing shows, in that it cares more about everything about a performer that isn’t his/her voice, but the show is not wrong that these elements are important to a singer’s career. To be successful, a singer has to have an it-factor that The Voice, especially in earlier seasons, struggled to find in its contestants.
Finally, the show has always been such a well-oiled machine that it has been hard for it to ever feel any different from episode to episode. This is the main reason its Emmy worthiness has always been questionable to me. I always enjoy episodes of The Voice when I watch them, but I never really feel compelled to watch it any given week, because nothing really changes. Sure, as the episodes progress each one does more and more different things with their contestants, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can pretty much expect the same thing overall experience. Sometimes a contestant gives a truly amazing performances, but, well, the Internet means I can just watch that specific song as opposed to a whole episode and get the same experience with far less time investment. This is a problem that all reality television shares, not just The Voice, and it’s on reason I question whether the genre really deserves its own Emmy category at all. Still, this is just the writer in me once again being an elitist prick, a part of me that should generally just be ignored.
What this all means is that this particular episode of The Voice was fun to watch, but nothing special. The coaches found the final members for their teams, and there were a lot of good singers. One interesting wrinkle is that, since this was the final set of blind auditions, spots on teams were extremely limited. On the one hand, it could be argued this might benefit the final contestants, because the judges have to fill their teams with someone, so a person might get picked simply to fill the spot, but really it is the exact opposite. These final contestants have the added baggage of needing to be perfect so that the judges don’t regret not being able to pick anyone else. This seems kind of unfair, but there is a not really a great way to fix it. There has to be more qualified people than spots, because otherwise the auditions might end before the teams are full, and people would have to be called back (which actually happened in the first season of The Voice). The surplus of quality also means the judges can take advantage of younger singers not being ready, and simply tell them to come back next year when their voices are more seasoned.
It’s definitely not a perfect system. Honestly, one of the best singers of the episode was 15-year-old Caroline Burns, who didn’t get picked because all the teams were full except Pharrel’s. To his credit, Pharrel gave a great explanation for why he didn’t pick her: she sounds too much like a voice he already has on his team, and so to pick her would be doing a disservice to both of them. It’s hard to be too sad about this, because the judges are absolutely correct–she can come back next year, and honestly she might be in an even better position to win, because her voice will have had one more year to mature. So I will kind of be interested to see if she does come back for the next edition of the show, because if she does she could go far. Plus, the girl that did get picked, Sydney Rhame, was absolutely fantastic with her rendition of Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph”–as Adam Levine astutely pointed out, her voice has a great glassy quality–so it’s not like the show really dropped the ball. The Voice has a knack for always finding the silver lining in a cloud, and that is why it will continue to go strong for the foreseeable future. Sometimes people just like having a constant source of positivity in their lives, and I respect The Voice for doing a good job of providing that.
Notes and Observations:
- I know I didn’t really cover the contestants in this episode, but without having seen the rest of this season it is hard to know where they stand now, and analyzing each performance for something in the past like this seemed a bit silly. That said, Pharrel got two great singers with Amy Vachal and the aforementioned Rhame, as did Adam with Shelby Brown. I would be very surprised if at least one of those three didn’t make it far into the competition.
- The banter between the judges is highly entertaining, especially because it feels really natural.
- The judges also always present themselves as caring far more about helping these artists than being the winning coach, which is why they don’t get too upset whenever a singer they want chooses someone else’s team.
- Gwen Stefani loves being on this show, and her energy is infectious.
- I didn’t choose to talk about this, but obviously the other big conceit of the show is that the contestants ultimately pick their coach, which allows for a bit of role reversal. This is always fun, because seeing the power dynamic switch like that is kind of exhilarating, and helps make the judges more likable because they don’t need to be in complete control all of the time.
- Carson Daly is also in this show, and as a host he is generally acceptable. He is really good at being nervous and excited with a contestant’s family while the blind auditions are happening.
- Team Gwen pick Chase Kirby had a family candy shop, and actually gave candy to the judges. It was kind of endearing. His performance was also pretty good.
- Blake Shelton’s trick where he had a bunch of paper fans made to look like his face was pretty funny. Adam Levine’s response to it was even funnier.
- Here’s my favorite performance of the night: Amy Vachal – ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me.’ Adam’s despair at not being able to pick her because his team was full was also hilarious.
Episode Grade: B
Would I Watch More?
In a lot of ways this show is like Scream Queens: solid, but not really good enough to be watched on a regular basis. Of course, The Voice lacks the baggage Scream Queens carries, so I don’t actually worry that a given episode will be terrible. Plus, considering I know have some emotional attachment to the singers I have and probably will continue to check in every once in a while on how the show is progressing, or at the very least try to keep up with who actually wins.