One of the most enjoyable recurring bits on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show is the lip synch battle, where Fallon and a game guest or two try to out-synch each other to some of their favorite songs. It’s a goof, but it’s reliably funny, everybody seems to be having a great time, and it’s over in about ten minutes. (Find the Stephen Merchant gangsta rap entry for maximum enjoyment.) “Sing Your Face Off,” the deeply unnecessary new celebrity singing competition reality show takes whatever enjoyment there is to be wrung out of seeing famous people screw around with familiar songs and drags it out over an awkward, hour-long slog of indifferently performed, overproduced, stiffly presented faux-frivolity. Planned for a six-episode run, ABC burned off two installments out of the gate. I watched both and, at two hours, the experience appeared to drag on to just over a week. I may still be watching it.
Seeing celebrities take on this sort of gig is an exercise in empathy fatigue. While the five more or less famous faces on display (in descending order of fame: Jon Lovitz, then a four way tie among Lisa Rinna, Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, Toronto Raptors basketballer Landry Fields, and Disney TV star China McClain) apply themselves to the extent their individual consciences and contracts stipulate, well, nobody appears on “Sing Your Face Off” because their careers are going great. Out of this group, Lovitz comes off the best, as his natural showoff goofiness lends itself to doing stuff like this in various venues. (Plus, pal Darrell Hammond is on hand as the “impressionist expert” judge on the panel.) Rinna’s performances aren’t leavened by that background in comedic exhibitionism, and come off more desperate for attention. Fields is a puzzler, unless he’s planning a post-hoops acting career. (He just seems like a nice, unremarkable guy.) Young McClain—a singer and actress since she was a toddler—has the scrubbed affect of the professional showbiz lifer. Everything she says sounds like she’s rehearsing to present at future awards shows. And the weathered Bach lurches through his every task half hiding how embarrassed he is to be there. (Dear “Sing Your Face Off”—repeatedly referring to Sebastian Bach as “rock legend Sebastian Bach” is not any more convincing the more you say it.)
The painfully drawn-out experience is rendered that much more interminable by host John Barrowman, who emcees the proceedings with a toothy rictus reminiscent of someone forced to perform while undergoing dental x-rays and worrying about the sniper watching him from the balcony. On Torchwood and Arrow, Barrowman’s got some presence. Here, he delivers his scripted banter and exposition in a rushed, uncertain voice frequently washed over by ill-timed audience noise. The only personality he exhibits is when he helps second-episode judge RuPaul teach Bach (after a self-consciously hetero performance as Lady Gaga) how to strut.
As to the competition itself (and I’d like to stress that I watched two episodes back-to-back), Barrowman’s not the only one who comes across as artificial. It’s unrealistic to expect the celebs on hand to deliver raw, ambitious performances after their impersonation boot camp, but the level of obfuscation and chicanery involved here is pretty insulting. At least when the performances are off (Rinna’s are the worst), there’s something endearingly almost human about them. Most of the time, however, the fakery viewers are expected to swallow is galling. Guide tracks. Auto-Tune. Overproduced and distracting choreography. Supposedly belting it out while dancing slathered in prosthetic noses and huge fake teeth. And huge-knobbed microphones clamped in front of nearly every performer’s face while the camera keeps a discreet distance. When Lovitz (tasked with singing opera like Luciano Pavarotti) gamely booms out his number sounding just like Jon Lovitz playing Pavarotti on SNL, it’s a refreshing glimmer of reality. The rest of the time, the performances are deadeningly distanced and artificial.
How could Sing Your Face Off actually be entertaining? Well, not treating the audience like dummies might be a start. At least on the still deeply unnecessary Dancing With The Stars, the performers involved have to actually learn how to do something. For all the truncated training montages here, the short musical performances the celebrities present are on the level of kids dressing up for the big talent show. (Even the “painstaking” prosthetics they go through are merely adequate—when Lovitz appeared as Elton John, he looked exactly like Jon Lovitz with a bunch of crap glued to his face.) And when the show grinds even further to a halt to spin the Wheel Of Fortune “face finder” wheel to determine each celeb’s next impression, there’s the added indignity of being expected to believe the outcomes aren’t predetermined. (Not that I’m dying for this to happen, but that would involve the possibility of cross-racial impersonations and not just Bach’s Lady Gaga crossdressing, presented here with crowd-pleasing giggliness.)
So on “Sing Your Face Off,” the celebrities aren’t inherently interesting, the performances are inauthentic and indifferent, and the host moves things along like he lost a bet. I watched two episodes.
- Having just read Darrell Hammond’s harrowing autobiography, it’s nice to see him looking so good. His mumbly, overly generous, eyes-averted mien throughout, however, suggests he’s not yet fully comfortable in front of TV cameras again.
- Barrowman kept referring to “next week’s episode” in the first installment, indicating that this two-episode burnoff wasn’t originally planned.
- Pure Barrowman: “We have seen four celebrity performances! And our next celebrity performer is…”
- Calling the elevators to the stage the “Face Lift” while carrying noted refurbisher Rinna suggests a joke I choose not to make.
- Lisa Rinna introduces husband Harry Hamlin (sitting way back in the audience), who wears an expression that says, “One of us is on a well-regarded show, darling—please don’t.”
- The crowd obligingly waits for Barrowman to announce the newly announced scores on the big board before cheering overenthusiastically. Either that, or adding three small numbers together is collectively beyond everyone.
- Judge Debbie Gibson is clearly angling to use this gig as her stepping stone to further celebrity competition show judging opportunities. Her relentlessly earnest praise includes: “You just encapsulated Lionel!” “You flipped the switch!” “You’re channeling her!” “You did it, girl!” “You sang your face off!” “You owned it!”
- Bach’s unwarranted self-regard is loathsome, as he attempts to assert his rock god status throughout. Being dressed up for his performance as Adam Levine, Bach says, “When they put Adam Levine’s hairstyle on Sebastian Bach’s head, that was a sad moment in rock.” I imagine Rock responding, “This man does not speak for me.”
- One of my first AV Club reviews was a celebrity diving competition. At the time, I thought it was part of some hazing process. Now?