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"The Sing-Off" Review: "F*ck a Beat, I'll Go A Capella"

By Seth Freilich | TV | September 19, 2011 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | September 19, 2011 |

I love me some Ben Folds and I kinda dig on a capella music, yet I never even thought to watch either of the two (abbreviated) seasons of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” After I was able to finally, gloriously, unregrettably remove myself from the teat of “American Idol” a few years back, I think I subconsciously decided that I would never watch another singing/talent reality show. And yet, back in August I not only found myself watching just such a show, but I was actually in the audience for such a show. And son of a bitch if it wasn’t pretty good.

Right off the bat I knew it was a bit different from “AI” because the opening number was the kind of song choice you’d surely never see on “American Idol” (I have to be vague here, as well as in some other spots, for reasons I’ll explain at the end, after the proper “review” discussion is out of the way — the tl;dr short version is that it was the episode won’t air until sometime in late October). And if you take away the fact that this is a singing competition and there are three judges, there’s not much else in common with “American Idol.”

For example, there is none of the crap filler that “AI” has (although I can’t be sure that won’t change when they’re down to just a few groups, still with two hours to fill). There are no fucking 8-minute prerecorded Ford songs. There is little pomp and schmaltz. There’s not a long, drawn-out elimination episode (“The Sing-Off” airs just one night a week). Host Nick Lachey may not be overly dynamic, but he’s perfectly adequate (sadly, his best bits will never be seen, as he’s at his most personable when he flubs his lines). And, more importantly, Lachey isn’t a distraction — he doesn’t inject himself in a Seacrestian manner with incessant rambling or worthless chatter with the judges. Oh, and the judges … they’re good. Really good.

Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman (of Boyz II Men … Motownphilly in the house!) and new judge Sara Bareilles give actually interesting and insightful critiques and commentaries on the performances. Sara, the newbie to the group (she takes over this season for Nicole Scherzinger, who left for the greener pastures of Fox’s impending “The X Factor”) is god damned adorable (I hate using that word to describe a girl because it’s so cliche but, well, she fucking is). Shawn is affably more than a “your pitchy dawg” stereotype, though he probably adds the least of the three judges. And Ben is just awesome. He’s smart and funny and focuses on really technical stuff that, when he’s done talking, you realize is totally right even if you could’ve never expressed the idea on your own (and this is not just me being in the bag for Ben Folds, though I am — a friend of mine said to me at one point during the taping, “I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s awesome and I totally want to see him in concert now”). For example, after the show, Ben made an interesting observation about how some groups are made up of a bunch of lead singers, whereas others have members who know and understand how to be a back-up. That’s a simple yet kind of fascinating observation which you can totally recognize in different groups but, personally, I would’ve never been able to connect the dots to make that observation on my own. Unfortunately, good judges’ commentary takes words and time, which means the judges’ discussions run long and will surely be edited down like a when the show airs, so I don’t know how well this aspect of the show will translate to what gets broadcast (more on that point in a bit).

As for the groups themselves, I have to be vague because I may have signed a confidentiality agreement (more on that, as well, below). But I can say that there are some really great groups here who aren’t merely talented a capella performers, but who are doing some really clever and creative things. Some are a bit amateurish and rough around the edges (several of the groups are just college kids, after all), and some of the performances feel a little too showey and stagey. But then there are other performances that are fantastic. At one point, a group took on a pretty strong challenge for their performance and nailed the shit out of it such that it was safe to assume that would be the performance of the night. Only the next group, in the impossible position of following them, did a number that was even more challenging (for an entirely different reason), and fucking killed it. I can’t wait to watch this episode when it airs just to see that performance again, and I have no doubt that this group will (or at least should) win the show. (“The Sing-Off” handles its voting differently than “AI” as well as the monkeys of America only get a chance to fuck it up during the live finale.)

Here’s my point — “The Sing-Off” isn’t an Earth shattering show, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But it is something that I think you’ll dig if you enjoy good singing and music (and not just a capella, though fans of a cappella should totally enjoy the show), or if you like a well put-together reality show that’s based on talent, rather than simply being a set of cameras following around some despicable human beings (which doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop watching the guilty pleasure, love of my life, “Real World/Road Rule Challenges,” thank you very much). Having seen just one episode, I already have groups I’m rooting for and against and that, plus some decent performances, is really all you need out of a show like this. Well, that plus some kick-ass beat boxing.


Ok, the review-proper is done, but lemme hit some loose ends relating to my having been at a taping. First, if you think I’m in the bag because I’m friends with a producer and blah blah blah, shut the fuck up. You should know this site well enough to know respect our integrity and, even putting aside the fact that I’m a lawyer which means my integrity is already suspect, stuff it. If I had hated the show, I’d have no problem shitting on it (in fact, I told my friend in no uncertain terms that the last reality show she produced for NBC was a flaming pile of Cedric the Entertainer’s shit).

Second, again, I realize I was (perhaps annoyingly) vague in some spots. That’s mainly because, as I mentioned, I may have signed a confidentiality agreement. You’d think, being a lawyer and all, I’d know if I did. But you forget, dear reader, that I’m kind of an idiot. Short version is that I did sign a release/waiver to get in, but I didn’t read it (see In re I’m a Bad Lawyer). So I don’t know if it included a confidentiality agreement. But before the taping began, the monkey who is supposed to get the audience geared up reminded us that we all signed a confidentiality agreement. So that makes me think I did sign one, naturally. But the catch here is that I got in as a friend of production, not part of the dirty masses, regular audience. So I dunno if the “regular” audience signed a confidentiality agreement in addition to a release or whether they were one in the same. And while I’m not sure NBC even has the money to sue me were I to break the confidentiality agreement I may or may not have signed, I’d rather not find out.

Third, for those who are curious, a show like this takes about 4-5 hours to film, from the opening number through the elimination. And by far the worst thing about sitting through a live taping like this is the manufactured adoration. The reason the audience at a show like “AI” is constantly screaming for every performance and for all these other little beats during the show is because there’s an off-camera monkey making them do it. It’s a brutal part of what is otherwise a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

Anyway, I realize that this is a review of the show as observed from being in the audience (mostly — I may have spent some time watching it on a closed-circuit TV from the green room because, well, green rooms have free beer and free beer always wins). What airs tonight will certainly be different in some ways (like the trimmed judge’s commentary), and may very well be different in other ways (live performances may not play nearly as well on TV, a point Simon Cowell has often talked about). And, in general, my suppositions about how the show will translate when cut down and edited together may be sorely mistaken. But based on what I saw, I stand by what I said above — if you dig music or a capella and/or a decently put together competitive reality show, I think you’ll be content here. And it sure beats the hell out of watching mother-fucking “Dancing with the Stars.”

“The Sing-Off’s” third season premieres tonight on NBC. It’s up against “Monday Night Football,” “Dancing with the Stars,” and “How I Met Your Mother.” So I hope NBC’s ratings expectations are exceedingly low.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.