(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Ryan McGee checks out the season finale of The Voice. Next week, Steve Heisler drops in on Tosh.0.)
Someone won The Voice tonight. If you’re reading this, you probably know who that person is. If you don’t, I’ll bury the results a little later. But I want to look at the real winner of The Voice: NBC. The network that has been perpetually in fourth place for almost as long as Bill Cosby sweaters have been out of fashion finally manufactured a genuine, no-asterisk-needed hit. But why did The Voice connect so much with audience members? Do the ratings for this mega-hit (due to come back in the coveted post-Super Bowl slot in 2012) speak to the show itself, its unnamed yet omnipresent competitors, or those watching and voting from home?
It’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since the first ratings came out for the show 10 weeks ago. It got an undeniable publicity push from NBC, but so have plenty of shows that almost instantaneously flopped on that network. The pre-show concept seemed alluring enough: Rather than select competitors after seeing them, the celebrity coaches (Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, and Cee Lo Green) had to pick them while seating in Emperor Palpatine-esque throne chairs before turning around to see their potential protégé. Given the way that not only American Idol, but the music industry in general, has stressed the physical appearance of its stars in the wake of MTV, this defining characteristic seemed to give The Voice enough reason to exist as something more than an Idol clone.
Of course, that defining characteristic went away almost instantly, with the coaches short the requisite number of teammates to actually enter the second phase of the competition. What ensued turned into a hallmark of the show’s first season: The producers seemingly started to make shit up. Several of the previously dismissed contestants got a chance to re-perform, but by this point, what they looked like was already well known. Upon finally assembling teams of eight, The Voice chose to have each team pursue a parallel path to the Final Four. For instance, people on Levine’s team only competed against other members of Team Adam. It wasn’t until this week that anyone had to compete against a contestant on an opposing squad.
These initial intra-squad competitions took place over four ill-advised weeks of “Battle Rounds,” during which two team members had to scream-sing a song simultaneously with each other. I’d love to think producers of The Voice came up with this idea drunkenly after realizing that the entire modus operandi of the show was essentially gone once both the judges and America knew what these people looked like. Ideally, in a perfect world, The Voice would have been like an extreme version of the game show Dating In The Dark, when only tonight would we learn what Dia Frampton and Company actually looked like. That’s obviously impractical on a number of levels, but here’s the point: Absolutely no one seemed to give a shit that the show gave only a glancing notice to its own premise. Ratings held strong week after week, long after the original conception was torched to the ground. So why did that happen?
Talent is probably the best reason, or at least the most optimistic one. Even though the eventual voting rules that the show installed made the United States tax code seem like 1st-grade math by comparison, people still voted, downloaded songs on iTunes, and assaulted Alison Haislip’s Twitter feed. Audience members still cared about these people long after they stopped being judged on their voices and got surrounded by flaming jugglers, half-naked dancers, and enough strobe lights to make Mary Hart spontaneously explode. Through all that, the power of the final four still shone through. Even through the Byzantine voting process, which at multiple points could have sent things sprawling into chaos, the last singers’ standings were uniformly strong. Better than the final four of most Idol seasons, to be sure, and definitely less predictable.
That predictability had a lot to do with the show’s success. Often in the waning weeks of Idol, there’s a fairly clear-cut choice, which forces the “judges” on that show to drum up controversy in order to drum up votes for the apparent front runner. At least The Voice had the good sense to call their A-list talent “coaches.” That not only described the way in which, to varying extents, they helped their eight-person teams through the competition. It also helped alleviate them from saying one bad thing about ANYONE at any time. By selecting these people, the coaches put their own talent evaluation on the line. To admit they made a mistake was unthinkable, so each judge apparently made a pact to not sell out anyone else’s team at any point in the proceedings. As such, Blake Shelton made Steven Tyler look like a menstruating Simon Cowell.
When they finally did get catty, it tended to be about the way in which a performance was staged, instead of, you know, the way it was performed. Case in point: Frampton’s performance last night of her “original” song “Inventing Shadows,” which got no praise nor condemnation because all the judges were bickering about the four silhouetted dancers behind her. Frampton stood onstage, doe-eyed and apparently hoping to disappear by force of sheer will, while the four supposed professionals talked about stupid shit that had no place on the stage in the first place. Because, again, as a reminder, this show is called The Voice. Not The Four Writhing Wraiths.
But still, people watched! So they didn’t care about the show abandoning its central concept, and they didn’t care that the coaches didn’t bother to give substantial advice that could have actually improved these would-be superstars from raw talent into something greater. So we now have to think about what the ratings say about The Voice, the last season of American Idol, and the upcoming premiere of The X Factor on FOX. It might be tempting to draw a through line between Idol and Voice and say that the third show should abandon all hopes of actually improving its contestants. It might be tempting to say that people don’t want to see their favorites criticized, even if that criticism if valid. It might be tempting to say they want some judge to Big Love a contestant the way Shelton apparently did with Frampton when he welcomed her to the family after her final performance. (A performance she did with his WIFE, Miranda Lambert, no less. Creepy.)
I’m not sure that’s really true, though. I think what the ratings say is much deeper, and yet more terrifying, than anything to do with either the quality of performances or the quality of judging/coaching. I think what the ratings speak to is a deep desire to hold onto something approaching a communal viewing experience. We’re a decade deep into the world of iPods, iPhones, WiFi, Hulu, Netflix, and a myriad of other technological advances that help the individual but simultaneously sever them from society. As someone who takes the commuter rail and then subway into work every day, I’m as guilty as many of being glued to either my cell phone or my portable gaming device. It helps me pass the time, but it also isolates me from those in the same cable car. Maybe that’s a good thing when there’s a homeless dude telling random women they’ll never get married (which happened last week), but on the whole, it can’t be a GOOD thing, can it?
So we get shows like The Voice, which are reality (a genre of television I normally ignore, if not outright loathe) but also tap into a need to watch the program as it airs, whether as a live or pre-taped episode. (Live is obviously better, but pre-taped didn’t seem to hurt.) There are a dozen ways to viably watch a program like Mad Men, Fringe, Modern Family, House Hunters, or the thousands of others I could mention that currently beam into your living room. Maybe you got in on the ground floor and have watched weekly. Maybe you missed a season or two but got caught up without too much being revealed. You’re perhaps missing out on the initial conversation surrounding it, but there’s no real fundamental loss in the experience watching the first episode of Breaking Bad three years after it premiered. It’s ideal, but far from necessary, to watch most shows the very night they originally air. (Put another way: The pop culture conversation absorbs Walter White, but discards Xenia. Which is probably how she likes it. Poor girl was so shell-shocked I became convinced her parents were being held hostage off-stage while she sang for their lives.)
But who in the hell wants to watch The Voice six months after its aired in a marathon session, the way one might spend a weekend watching an entire season of Archer? It’s not simply that the ability to participate in the voting has long past. It’s that the ability to participate in the conversation, whether it be at the water fountain at work the next day or in some form of social media as it airs, has long past. I can talk to someone who just watched the pilot episode of Lost and have an interesting conversation right now about something I saw seven years ago. It’s not that I can’t perhaps one day have an interesting discussion about Javier Colon’s win tonight a decade hence. (See? I told you I'd eventually get around to the actual winner.) I’m just not sure the desire for that particular conversation could arise.
So that’s why I think the viewing audience for The Voice has been so high: People are afraid of missing out on a limited window of opportunity they might have to discuss a piece of pop culture that has a limited shelf life. That’s not to say anything about the potential shelf life of this show’s Final Four: a successful career for any combination of Colon, Frampton, Vicci Martinez, and Beverly McClellan wouldn’t surprise me in the least. I enjoyed those four despite every obstacle the production of The Voice threw their way and have no animosity towards any of them and wish them all well going forth.
But again: Nothing The Voice did or didn’t do ended up hurting its success this season. It did about 10 things that should have offended the sensibilities of millions, but it did one thing right, and that was the most important of all: It provided a piece of entertainment that burned brightly and quickly, demanding instantaneous discussion predicated on having viewed it upon initial airing. It’s the type of buzz that higher quality shows deserve but no longer demand. Our increasingly specialized way of consuming media has essentially killed that option, which means in some ways we’ve essentially cut off our favorite shows at the knees.
Standing atop them all, hands raised to the sky, stands The Voice. It’s not that The Voice is inherently evil, by any stretch. And I can honestly say I enjoyed quite a few of the performances, especially once the show’s contestants got into the single digits. (My grade reflects quality of overall content, even if I'm nervous about the reasons behind the ratings.) But for those like me that value scripted drama over reality fare, the success of The Voice probably should send a slight shiver down our collective spines. For better or for worse, television is an industry designed to make money. If 12 million people watched Chuck, there would be a dozen shows about dorky spies and their hottie handlers. In lieu of ways to better monetize the modern, fractured viewing experience, networks are going to program more shows that are instantly disposable but demand constant, weekly viewing.
That The Voice gave us quite a bit to like is an added bonus, but it’s not the reason ratings were so high. The reasons for that lay outside of that overproduced television studio. They lay in the individual eyes that knew they were far from alone in watching it. Many of us love the freedom that modern technology affords us to consume pop culture in our own way, on our own time. But The Voice shows just how much many feel they have lost in this new world order. Does that reason explain everything about the millions that watch the first NBC hit in ages? Certainly not. But I think it explains quite a lot.
- I didn’t say a lot about the judges, because I felt at times the show felt it was about them more than the contestants. But as much as I make fun of Shelton above, he clearly came off the best. Cee Lo Brown and Adam Levine didn’t help or hurt their cause. Christina Aguilera joined the show in the wake of some personal and professional problems and actually hurt her image more by being a coach. Being the only female coach could have afforded her a unique perspective and insight. Instead, it afforded her the chance to show off her ridiculous cleavage and pass off her own worst singing traits to singers whose careers were in her hands.
- Speaking of the male/female disparity on the coaching staff, let it be noted than six of the final eight and three of the final four were female. And yet a man still won. Colon was a worthy champion, but between this and recent seasons of Idol, look for a LOT of words to be written about the gender imbalance on television singing competitions.
- While it was sometimes hard to tell how genuine the interactions between coach and contestants were, I did feel watching Shelton and Levine praying before the final announcement that they were genuinely invested in that final outcome. If that was a performance, well done by them. But it felt real to me.
- So how bad ARE the photos that Carson Daly has of NBC brass? That must be some sick, twisted stuff to justify his presence on the show.
- The duets tonight were hit and miss, but at least they involved the actual contestants. Every time the judges got together to make Freddie Mercury roll over in his grave as they butchered another Queen classic, a kitten got run over by a semi-truck.
- “Only two percent! How incredible is that?” Carson Daly, apparently trying out a pitch for an upcoming milk commercial.
- “That’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done, aside from having kids and getting married.”
- “I love you so sincerely. There are many people you remind me of, but nobody reminds me of you.”
- “I know now why I get so emotional when I’m around you… You’re family to me now.”