ABC got into the singing-contest business Sunday night with "Rising Star." Notwithstanding host Josh Groban's promise of "a completely new concept, unlike anything you've ever seen" that would "completely change the way you watch television," it was very much a thing of its well established kind.
If it was not a revolution, it was nevertheless not without a few new giant-sized wrinkles. In order to make things even more visually stimulating than usual, the producers devised -- what shall we call it? -- a gimmick. A 70-foot curved wall separating the singer from the studio audience is raised when the singer achieves a go-through approval rating of 70% (a C, we would have called that back in school) of the app-enabled, real-time votes of home viewers, combined with the more heavily weighted verdict of three celebrity judges. Though the instant-gratification, "cutting edge" aspects of this system were repeatedly stressed, it is essentially a version of the decibel-sensitive applause meters used in days of old to determine talent-contest winners.
(Math note: Because voters have to "check in" for each singer beforehand, fixing the total number of votes, and because not voting is recorded as voting no, the percentage of yes votes can be expressed as a continually rising figure rather than a fluctuating one. It took me some time to work that out. Most viewers will sensibly not bother. The West Coast vote, tallied separately, can "save" a contestant not passed by the other time zones.)
As if to mitigate all the edge-cutting, the celebrity regulars seemed arranged to recall precisely the panelists of "The Voice": country dude (Brad Paisley, who "can sure croon the pants off a heifer"), black guy (Ludacris, opining of the contestants, "This is the biggest day of their lives, in my opinion"), diva (Kesha, formerly Ke$ha, from whom some outrageousness was evidently expected -- "Sorry, censors, it's Kesha," said Groban, introducing her -- but who totally behaved), with non-voting, mentoring host Groban as Adam Levine.
Each of the evening's contestants was introduced, in the familiar Olympic-competitor style, with a filmed segment laying out a graspable narrative; some care had been expended, clearly, to provide a variety of styles and stories, and along with the solo performers were a teen boy band, already living a Disney Channel sitcom in their hive mind, and a folk-poppy him-and-her duo. For an added twist, one unsuspecting audience member, who had auditioned by Instagram, because this is 2014, was plucked from the audience to be the evening's final competitor. (Her name is Macy Kate and she is 16.) She didn't appear to be learning this at exactly the moment that Groban approached her, but close enough.
"They're going to get you as ready as possible," said Groban, though she was evidently born ready; she earned the night's highest score.
"I was blown away," Kesha told her afterward. "I think America was blown away."
America is the much-named co-conspirator in these proceedings, out there on the other side of the cameras -- not completely faceless here, since profile pictures of some voters were flashed on the singer's side of the big screen, a screen "big enough to hold the power of America's voters," as it "stands between a singer and their dreams."
"I love you, and America loves you," Groban told one contestant; "America loves you, and our experts love you," he told another. (It seems worth mentioning here that "America's Got Talent" was running opposite on NBC.)
Of the judges, on the evidence of one episode, Kesha will be the nice one ("I hate voting no," she told one rejected singer, "it makes me feel really bad inside"); Ludacris, the one who listens most critically, in a professional way; and Paisley will split the difference ("I felt like it was unpleasant but sweet," he told the folk-pop couple). Groban, who has a role as a quirky teacher in some future high school comedy if he wants it, makes a good host; the occasional looseness in his pacing, which some might deem amateur, made a refreshing contrast to the enormousness of the production, and his asides could be winningly weird: to a contestant's compliment about his hair, he responded, "It's just ketchup and baby tears."
The narrative, here and in all such competitions, is the dream, which you are never to stop dreaming; it is an American right and responsibility, practically. (You are never to stop fighting, either.) And though the show's signature big wall, for all its hokiness, does represent a kind of reality check -- not every singer got through -- the judges tended to soften the rejection with encouragement. The singers were mostly young -- Sarah Darling, a country singer from Nashville, was an outlier at 31. (She and Paisley had mutual friends, he happened to mention, without recusing himself; to which Ludacris reasonably remarked, "We have some biased decisions," then added a quick, "I'm joking.")
The critic too is not particularly interested in crushing dreams, or raining on parades, or killing the buzz, or establishing his superiority over any of these hopefuls. At two hours, the show felt an hour too long to me, but I am not the person for whom it was made. These are pop events, highly orchestrated but of the people and for the people, and though one can pick apart the particulars, in a fundamental sense they are beyond criticism; they are there for the taking, and the partaking in, and I leave you to it, if you like it.