‘Duets’ Reaction: Wait, So How Does This Work?

Duets ABC CastYou’re in luck, fans of reality singing competitions. Thanks to ABC, you never have to go a single season without being able to judge amateur singers addictions to unflattering dresses and overindulgent performances. Duets premiered on May 24 and it is definitely a reality show about singing. Unfortunately, that’s about where the explanation about what kind of reality show about singing begins and ends. It’s about as bare bones (and confusing) as these things get.

First, let’s try to understand the rules. There are four judges: Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, Kelly Clarkson (take that, Idol!), sexy singing gents John Legend and Robin Thicke. But this leads to the first point of confusion: Are these established artists looking for stars or backup singers? We love Legend’s buttery tone and Clarkson’s pop-perfect rasp, so wouldn’t the perfect compliment be a back-up singer who fades in effortlessly?

The judges, who are called “Superstars” on this show because they’re both judges and contestants debut their first round of duet partners, all of whom learn of their fates with the new catchphrase, “Let’s du-et!” (Heh. Get it? Like a duet. You’ll get there.) Nettles selected a singer whose voice and style were very different from her own, which actually made the competition a little interesting, while Legend, Clarkson, and Thicke all picked people who were so close to their own styles we found ourselves wishing we could just listen to the Superstars without the amateur accompaniment. And therein lies the problem with Duets
While shows like The Voice, X Factor, and even American Idol withstand the storm of criticisms about the star power of their judging panel and how it hinders the contestants from truly attaining fame, Duets comes right out and admits it: Yep, this is all about the stars. In fact, it’s so much about the stars, they don’t even let the contestants sing on their own. It takes the model of The Voice and The X Factor where the judges each pick teams to coach and develop until the finale, to a more blatantly honest level. It’s the Superstars who win or lose in the end, and these unknowns are just the pawns in their little summer game, which actually looks like a pretty fun exercise for the well-known singers. I just wish it was a little more fun for us. The stakes feel so incredibly low, and that’s the last thing viewers want in a reality competition.
And speaking of viewers, they don’t even have a say. The people judging the Superstars and their contestants are the Superstars, which seems like a flawed system. When each duet hits the stage, the Superstars use their iPads to cast secret ballots which then affect the order of the duet partners on this list the series refers to as “The Charts.” (Heh. Get it?)  But because the producers know that the best structure for a music show – strong performances at the beginning and end, lesser performances in the middle – we had no trouble predicting how the charts would line up. It was almost as if host Quddus (Think back to TRL. Okay, remember his goofy grin? And the name we didn’t know how to pronounce? Okay, proceed…) was surprised at how uneventful this “The Charts” invention was. Of course, it’s sure to get a little shake-up as the season continues and the eliminations start coming. Or so we can only hope.

Maybe it’s a harsh knee jerk reaction or maybe the opening credits of So You Think You Can Dance had it right: “All year television has been dominated by singers. Isn’t it time for a little dance?” And from the looks of the ratings, it seems most TV viewers are feeling the strain too; Duets only raked in a 1.7 rating among adults 18-49, or just 6.7 million viewers.  Duets certainly tries to be an innovative, new kind of singing competition, but when it comes to reality, perhaps it’s best to stick with what works.

Did you enjoy Duets? Or is it missing a certain something? Sound off in the comments section!
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler.