The Voice, Season 2 and Dancing with the Stars, Season 14 – Starring Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, Christina Milian, and Carson Daly (The Voice); Tom Bergeron, Brooke Burke Charvet, Jaleel White, Katherine Jenkins, Donald Driver, Maria Menounos, Gladys Knight, Melissa Gilbert, Roshon Fegan, and William Levy.
I neither hate nor love Reality TV as a genre. I don’t watch a whole lot of it anymore (in part, because I don’t have cable), but I’ve certainly watched my share of it over the years. Reality TV has become a very diverse genre, with all levels of actual reality depicted in the programming, and encompassing everything from the absurd to the ridiculous. THE VOICE and DANCING WITH THE STARS represent two of the genre’s main staples: the talent competition and the celebrity spectacle.
Together, they provide a fascinating contrast in having a career in the entertainment industry. It’s easy to say that THE VOICE is about up and coming talent trying to find a place in the business while DANCING WITH THE STARS is about “celebrities” trying to recapture their place but that’s too easy and, honestly, a bit false. (And not just because I hate when people refer to these people as “celebrities” instead of celebrities.) THE VOICE is a vocal competition featuring “unknown” talent, but many of the contestants have worked in the industry; one of the contestants on this season, Juliet Simms, has apparently already had five recording contracts that didn’t stick. Likewise, while it’s true that DANCING features celebrities whose careers are not where they want it to be, there is a wide variety in what stage those celebrities are at: some are on the way up, some are on the way down, some are stalled, and some have nothing to prove to anyone.
Honestly, Gladys Knight is on DANCING. She doesn’t have to prove jack to anyone.
I haven’t watched either show before this season (other than a few random moments of DANCING) and I came to watch them for different reasons: I gave THE VOICE a watch because I’d heard good things about it, and I watched DANCING because I was in the middle of a massive essay grading marathon and was out of options in my Hulu queue. And, I’ll be honest, I was in the mood for a celebrity train wreck and I just don’t have the stomach to sit through Celebrity Apprentice, a show designed to make celebrities look like idiots for the glory of Donald Trump.
I was pleasantly surprised by both shows – I’ve become a huge fan of THE VOICE, a genuinely surprisingly emotional and talent-rich show, and instead of finding a bunch of desperate fame seekers making idiots of themselves, the cast of DANCING seem to be having a genuinely good time and putting in genuine work. What was most surprising to me wasn’t that competitors on THE VOICE were emotional about being sent home, but that the competitors on often DANCING were; Gladys Knight might not have to prove jack to anyone, but she was noticeably moved by her exit from the show.
The two shows have a lot in common; they’re both competitions, sure, but they’re also shows about honing one’s abilities and growing as artists, and there’s something really honorable about that. If you’ve poked around the Anxiety much, you know that I like to write fiction, and I’m always trying to get better. On this level, at least, the only difference between me, Juliet Simms, and Gladys Knight is that they’re trying to get better while also being on TV, so don’t expect me to mock what they’re doing.
THE VOICE is the better show and not just because it displays people with a singing talent in a singing competition, while DANCING consists of people with non-dancing talents attempting to dance. There’s something very powerful about where the competitors on THE VOICE are in their careers. Instead of being a negative that these aren’t industry virgins, the fact that Simms has had multiple recording contracts and that Jermaine Paul has been singing back-up for Alicia Keys adds something to the show because it offers various narratives to follow. Instead of a show like American Idol where every competitor is coming from the same place, THE VOICE’s decision to allow in professionals, to not have age restrictions, and to have the singers assigned to teams allows us to get to know them better, and to allow them (and us) to know the judges better.
The use of the judges as coaches is really the most brilliant move THE VOICE makes because it not only gives us the now tried-and-true role of celebrities sitting in judgment of non-celebrities, but it also invites them into the show’s narrative. They become invested in their team and competitive with each other, so it’s not just a matter of them sitting back and dictating. During the Blind Auditions judges can decide to offer their services to the competitors, so it quickly changes from the singers trying to impress the judges enough to get them to hit their buttons and turn their chair around (hence, the “blind” part of the audition – the judges can’t see the contestants while they’re singing, thus ensuring it’s all about their voice and not their look) to the judges having to convince the singers to join their team.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is watching the judges squirm as they have to eliminate members of their own team. There’s an aspect of fan voting to the show in terms of advancing singers to the next round (and it’s tied to phone calls, Facebook, and iTunes purchases), but the judges have most of the power in deciding who to send home. I know it sounds awful to enjoy watching them squirm, but it makes for great television.
It’s also fascinating watching the judges interact with their teams. Blake Shelton’s approach is very brotherly and supportive and he seems to favor his artists singing songs from the 1980s. Unlike the other judges, he prefers to have his singers perform without big production numbers going on around them, and there’s a wonderfully funny ongoing joke on the show of him being utterly perplexed by the Cee-Lo and Christina’s singers sharing the stage with dudes on stilts and shirtless men. Of all the judges, Shelton is also the most aware of who he is; which is to say, “the country guy.” During the auditions he seemed uncomfortable about being “the country guy” and the burden that came with judging every country artist that sang on the stage, and pushed to have a diverse team of vocalists.
Cee Lo Green is the real star of THE VOICE, though. While Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera come off as Mr. I Hate to Make a Decision (even admitting this week that they always say how tough it is for them to make a decision) and Ms. I Revel In Making Decisions (a couple weeks back she dumped Jesse Campbell, her most talented singer), Cee Lo is the most personally invested in his team and also the most brilliant participant on the show. It’s all sorts of incredible to see him working with his team and his effect on the show. More than any of the judges, Cee Lo sees the big picture and knows how to position his singers in the competition. He also has the widest knowledge of music, so while Blake prefers the 1980s and Adam prefers more recent hits, Cee Lo helps his singers pick songs that they can emotionally connect with, and he must do some real coaching because his singers seem more attached to him than the other singers do with their coaches.
Also, this week he apparently couldn’t stop farting.
Over on DANCING WITH THE STARS, instead of the group of “celebrities” people like to delight in ripping on, there’s a real mix of celebrities at different stages in their careers. While not as emotional or compelling as THE VOICE, DANCING is a diversionary enough watch that alternates scenes of the celebrities training with their agitated dancing partners with their actual dancing performances.
What works about DANCING is that the show doesn’t take itself too seriously; some of the dancers take themselves way too seriously, but the show itself has a fun vibe to it, and the celebrities seem to have a real affection for one another. Perhaps it’s an act, but there is something bizarrely cool about seeing celebrities as diverse as Katherine Jenkins, Donald Driver, Gladys Knight, and Jaleel White hanging out, enjoying each other’s company, and struggling to learn how to dance.
That struggle is a big part of DANCING’S strategy – showing celebrities failing during training and then (hopefully) succeeding during their live performance. There’s three judges who aren’t there to offer real real critiques as much to be live action cartoons. There’s Carrie Ann Inaba, who tries to be the non-insane one and in the process comes off as nitpicky and desperate. There’s Len Goodman, who’s old and British and generally likes to say things that makes the crowd angry. And there’s Bruno Tonioli, a deranged Italian Pinocchio puppet come to life who thinks the shows exists solely for the 20 seconds he gets to talk about each performance. He’s occasionally funny and sometimes incredibly creepy, like when he asked Maria Menounos and Derek Hough after a steamy dance if a) they wanted a hotel room, and b) if he could join them for a threesome.
Maria Menounos doesn’t get enough attention for being pretty darn close to perfect: she’s hot, funny, self-deprecating, likes wrestling, and is from the home state.
Tom Bergeron is the host of the show and he sets the perfect tone for the show, keeping things moving and keeping everything light. Unlike Carson Daly over on THE VOICE, who’s probably a really nice guy but always comes off as the Eternal Douchebag, Bergeron manages to be both professional and relaxed.
Both shows deliver what they promise, but for me, THE VOICE is a show that I look forward to watching and DANCING is a show that’s been added to the queue to watch in the background when I’m doing other things. THE VOICE just has that perfect mix of celebrity, competition, talent, and narrative; I end up rooting for the singers and liking the judges, while over on DANCING I just sort of watch to be diverted from doing work.