"Duets," which airs Thursday nights at 7 on ABC, is another try by that network to mine some success from the overflow of shows like FOX's perennial smash "American Idol," via NBC's recent hit "The Voice." The hook for the show is that the celebrity panel -- made up of Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Nettles, Robin Thicke and John Legend -- aren't merely listening to people sing and judging the performances, or even mentoring the performers in addition to their judging duties. No, they're actually participating in the competition by performing with their chosen pair of contestants.
Across the television landscape, a number of music series have debuted -- and disappeared -- in the 12 years since FOX successfully adapted the British program "Pop Idol" for U.S. audiences. "American Idol," however, has always seemed like a special case. ABC trotted out the very-similar "The One: Making a Music Star," which was yanked after a handful of disastrously-rated airings. CBS launched a show from reality super-producer Mark Burnett called "Rock Star," which had a decent first season, then died the next summer. Other shows, like USA's "Nashville Star" fared somewhat better, thanks to sticking to certain popular genres, but most of the rest sank pretty quickly.
So how does "Idol" succeed while the others fail? Well, you can't underestimate the value of familiarity for a television audience. "Idol" was first into the space, and quickly established its spot there. Also, many fans of the show almost assuredly started watching it less for the singing and more for the unpredictable (and often stinging) criticisms by the judging panel.
While "Idol" isn't the same show today that it was in its heyday, the ratings don't lie; the 18-49 audience still shows up twice (or even three times) a week to watch it live, and as the contestant pool is whittled away to the final pair, the ratings trend stays on an upward course.
This is why the other broadcast networks (and even FOX themselves, in the case of "The X Factor") are willing to keep putting spins on the "Idol" formula. When NBC connected last summer -- and again this spring -- with "The Voice," I'm willing to bet that other networks finally felt that the time was right for another music competition series to take up residence in their primetime schedules, and maybe start generating some buzz among younger audiences.
Is "Duets" that show for ABC? For me, it's too early to tell. In the first episode, the judges were positively glowing toward each other and the singers they've chosen to work with; that's fine, I guess, for a first night, but I wanted to hear actual constructive criticism. Several of the duets -- featuring songs that were hits for the judges -- were actually better than I'd expected (particularly Nettles and her duet partner's re-take of her hit "Stay"), but a couple felt awfully shaky, almost like they were driven by producers' whims and not necessarily the preferences of the artist. (I'm sure, for example, that since Clarkson has a still-in-heavy-rotation hit in "Stronger," it was a no-brainer to do it on the show. I'm also sure that the decision to allow her pink-haired duet partner to lead the way on the song was a gutsy call, no matter who made it. But I'm just as sure that the song suffered from being played in a different key and having the original singer relegated to a might-as-well-be-offstage harmony part.)
Another element that just didn't work was the scoring system. The three performers who aren't on-stage at any given time score the performances on a pair of 50-point scales, with a perfect score being 100. But we don't see those individual scores, or a total score, or even an averaging of the judges' scores. No, the performances are merely ranked on what the show refers to as "The Chart." Presumably, that meant that whoever ended up at the bottom of the list was going to be eliminated, building suspense throughout the two hours.
But there wasn't to be any elimination in the first episode, a plot point mentioned off-handedly by host Quddus in the opening minutes of the show. Since no one was in danger, all of the judges' scoring, comments and "The Chart" were robbed of any importance. I understand that a competition show needs to establish the hows and whys of what they're up to -- and that they want us to become attached to a favorite contestant -- but making the judging methods convoluted won't inspire viewers to come back for more.
All in all, I think the "Duets" concept isn't a bad one at all -- and I think there is a fun show in here, one that could develop over the next several weeks. Right now, though, it feels like the whole affair still needs a serious polish. Two and a half stars (out of four).
Content advisory: The first episode of "Duets" was rated TV-PG, L, for some sporadic off-color language. Since this is a feel-good summer show aimed at a family audience, it's a good bet that the show won't contain any content stronger than that. The songs in the first episode were all current pop and R&B music; there were a couple of them that were just a shade racy, but still suitable for broadcast TV. Put it to you this way: If you aren't a fan of what's playing on most commercial radio stations these days, you probably won't like the selections made here.