The Voice ends, having surprisingly reinvented the singing competition: what worked, what didn’t

The Voice ends its first season tonight, having successfully done what no other network show has been able to do: reinvent the singing competition to stand apart from–and improve upon–American Idol. It also brought viewers to NBC, and was another success for Mark Burnett and his brand of (usually) high-quality reality television.

As a watchable, entertaining show with great performances and nice twists, it sets the bar extremely high for The X Factor, which on paper seems a bit too close to American Idol now to differentiate itself, though I’d guess that the producers of the Fox series will make adjustments based on what they saw on The Voice.

For all the indulgence (the performances by the coaches) and gimmicks (swivel chairs!), the show succeeded. But it wasn’t perfect, of course. Here’s a breakdown of what I liked and what I hope improves when the show returns in 2012:

What works

  • The actual coaching. Watching real artists give constructive feedback to contestants was both entertaining and had an impact. It’s also clear that some of the coaches actually bonded with the contestants, and even learned from them. This could have easily been a situation where the coaching was perfunctory, since the coaches have their own careers, but they seemed genuinely invested.
  • The audition rounds. The swivel chairs were the easiest thing to make fun of before the season began, but they also made auditions very interesting. It also helped that producers found great people to audition, so it wasn’t a parade of assclowns.
  • The music and performances. To my amateur ears, the singing seemed significantly and consistently better than what most American Idol contestants offer week to week, and nearly every performance was visually interesting to watch. The set changed and gave each performance its own look and feel, and that kept things interesting.
  • Acknowledging sexual orientations. It’s ridiculous to even have to mention this, but since American Idol has never had an openly gay contestant compete, it is remarkable that this show has two lesbian finalists, and has never flinched from acknowledging that or its other contestants’ sexual orientations.
  • Combining elements of performance and elimination episodes. The show rarely seemed stale or formulaic, even when it was throwing filler or product placement at us, by not following the standard formula that other network competitions follow.
  • Group numbers and duets. The group numbers, whether they involved the coaches or not, were pretty consistently awesome. Yes, I just wrote that. And there was no lip syncing–on a singing competition! The duets with coaches also worked pretty well, although sometimes the coach stepped on the contestant.
  • Viewers watched. On some level, it’s remarkable that viewers tuned in to watch all of this. Considering how different American Idol is, I could see these changes and improvements turning The Voice into a smaller cult favorite, but it’s doing extremely well–especially for NBC.

What should improve

  • The (forced) bickering between the coaches. Playful rivalry is fun. Bickering isn’t.
  • Christina Aguilera. She’s a little too full of herself, and while that’s probably genuine, it can get a little grating. She just needs to pull back a notch or two.
  • The Twitter stuff. It’s filler and uninteresting filler at that. I hope/predict Alison Haislip will go the way of Big Brother AOL adviser Regina Lewis. Awesome that the show used Twitter well, putting the hashtag on screen at strategic moments, but I don’t think the show and its personalities trended because of those inane segments.
  • The voting. Changing the voting rules every other week is confusing and unnecessary. If we need to give judges more power, producers should rip off So You Think You Can Dance, not follow the Dancing with the Stars‘ complicated math model.
  • The battle rounds. I loved the idea but they seemed to kill the show’s momentum. I’m not sure if that was the duets, the format of the episodes, or just the fact that we’d just started to love the audition episodes when these began. But I think the battle rounds need some tightening and rethinking.
The Voice: B+

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.