A Duets Duet: On the Reality Singing Competition That Makes No Sense

Now that our nation’s dueling, mediocre, pop-detecting machines, American Idol and The Voice, have come to positively underwhelming conclusions, ABC is filling the summer gap with Duets. Featuring four superstar performers — the word “superstar” is used loosely and often on this show — Duets hopes to discover the world’s best duet partner (we think?) by having Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, and Robin Thicke perform their biggest hits (and “biggest” “hits”) alongside relative unknowns. Other pertinent facts: This show is hosted by former MTV VJ and ghost of your youth Quddus; the tagline is “Will you duet with me?”; it is nearly impossible to understand how one is meant to win the show at the conclusion of its nine episodes. In other words, your Thursdays nights are all set for the rest of the summer. Sad singing-show addicts Juliet Litman and Sean Fennessey watched last night’s inaugural episode in search of rhyme, reason, an easily understood voting system, and some answers about Jennifer Nettles’s face.

Sean Fennessey: So, Juliet: When you first heard that there would be a television singing competition called Duets, what did you expect?

Juliet Litman: While I was barraged with advertisements for it during the NBA games on ABC, with little information about the show, I decided I was all in. If we learned anything from The Voice‘s glorious debut, it’s that sometimes the second-rate singing show is best. The only piece of information I had was that Quddus was the host. Really, what else did I need?

Fennessey: A stiff drink?

Litman: Sean, I have a question for you. Before the Duets premiere, did everyone else in the world know that John Legend was a complete dick?

Fennessey: I have a lot of strong feelings about Quddus. John Legend, on the other hand, puts us in a strange position. At best, he’s the third-most popular “superstar” on Duets. After Kelly Clarkson (who is made of magic) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (who is possibly an evil sorceress). So JL’s persistent attitude was pretty surprising.

Litman: I’m really glad you brought up Kelly. Because after “Johnny” (if Robin Thicke can call him that, I can too, right?), Kelly’s distractingly strong Southern accent was the biggest surprise of the night.

Fennessey: She’s real Texas. Like Nolan Ryan, punch-you-in-the-head Texas.

Litman: I’ve spent enough time watching AMTV that I have Kelly’s Proactiv commercial seared into my brain. She does not always sound like that! I guess she is now more Southern than ever.

Fennessey: I think Kelly’s one of the three or four most likable reality television participants ever, fake accent or no. But she did say something terrible last night.

Litman: What was that?

Fennessey: “I just think there’s something special about you. And honestly, you reminded me of me.”

Litman: Ha! Oh, Kelly. Did you learn nothing from Idol? (Full disclosure: In an act of rebellion, I’ve never seen a full episode of Idol.) [Ed. note: Pack up your desk. You now have unlimited free time for Degrassi reruns.]

Fennessey: Oh, Juliet, no. Kelly said that terribly self-aggrandizing thing to Jason Farol, who finished dead last on the Big Board last night. Can you explain how the Big Board works on Duets?

Litman: Yes, the Big Board! Probably my favorite flourish of the comically low-budget set. After each “superstar” sings with his/her duet partner, the three other “superstars” rate the non-“superstar” partner. After each performance, the current rankings are revealed on the Big Board, which from my vantage point appears to be the rejected mockup of the original Family Feud board.

You’re probably wondering what the criteria are or how the “superstars” make their assessments. Well, I’m wondering too. Because we have essentially zero information. Does the lowest-ranked regular get voted off? Is she or he given a chance to rise in the rankings? All great questions. Truth and time will tell all, I’m hoping.

Fennessey: Only Quddus knows.

Litman: Quddus! Back to him for a second. If an early-aughts TV personality would ever benefit from the current sartorial trend of well-tailored suits as perfected by Kobe Bryant, it would be Quddus. Yet, for some reason, he appeared in a light-grey suit that a draftee would have worn to the 2002 NBA draft.

Fennessey: It’s true, he did have a Samaki Walker–esque thing happening.

Litman: What is your take on Jennifer Nettles? Do you know anything about her at all?

Fennessey: There’s a lot to say about ol’ Nettles. I know quite a bit about her by virtue of having a mom. Moms really like Nettles’s group Sugarland, and they really like Nettles’s mom-ish affect. Last night may have disabused many of those moms of their positive feelings, though, because wow, she was just about the creepiest person I’ve ever gazed upon. The faces she made when her duet partners (mostly failed to) hit the notes in her songs were excruciating.

Litman: I was confused as to why she didn’t perform the one Sugarland song I know, “Stuck Like Glue.” (That is Sugarland, right?)

Fennessey: It is and it’s essentially the soundtrack to every orange juice commercial ever. Were you taken with Netty or as terrified as I was?

Litman: I was horrified. Horrified by her cape, horrified by her facial expressions, horrified by her teariness. Nettles, there is no crying in Duets. I think she has the most to gain from the show (closely followed by Robin Thicke, whose music I genuinely like), but I don’t know if she’ll be the Blake Shelton breakout that they were clearly going for.

Fennessey: Here are the notes I made on Nettles while watching:
“Oh, right, Sugarland.”
“Whoa, lady. No.”
“MacBeth witches.”
“Make this stop.”
“Nettles Face.”

Litman: Here’s mine: “Nettles, tears.”

Fennessey: She also said two terrible things last night (people were doing this all over the place). After a particularly sensual performance by John Legend and Bridget Carrington: “[That] makes me wanna go home after the club!”

And upon meeting a contestant: “My nanny tells me that you sing in her church and she loves it!”

Litman: I thought there was a fight last night among the “superstars” about who would be the one who got to make the sexy comments.

Fennessey: Yeah, they really jockeyed hard for rights to “You got me going, girl.”

Litman: Robin Thicke is the obvious choice for sexually charged judge — err, “superstar” — but Nettles has the cougar angle and she’s exploiting it. I was appalled that she’d choose a partner who ended up in the ER due to bloody tonsils. Is that something that really happens? Grey’s Anatomy is sure to have a tonsil emergency next season — network synergy!

Fennessey: Nettles knows about building the redemption factor, plus Shonda Rhimes cuts fat checks. Robin Thicke is an interesting figure. Definitely the least famous, and probably the least talented, but he seemed the most comfortable out there. At one point, he said to the aforementioned Jason Farol, “The only conclusion I can come to is, you’re adorable.” Which, what?

Litman: Really, you think least talented? I’ll defend The Evolution of Robin Thicke hard.

Fennessey: I will, too. I love his music. But as far as vocal fireworks go, he’s the lesser of the “superstars.”

Litman: Did you catch when he referenced his mom but not his dad? Daddy complex.

Fennessey: Is it surprising that a man who sings with the voice of a prepubescent girl has daddy issues?

Litman: It’s true, he’s not the best singer. I think Johnny is the best singer, but I think Robin has the best partner, Olivia Chisolm.

Fennessey: Here is how Nettles pronounces “Olivia”: Eh-leeeeevia.

Litman: That’s the official 4-H Club pronunciation. Didn’t you know?

Fennessey: I’m learning so much. Were there any contestants not selected by our “superstars” that you wanted to see go through?

Litman: I was really hoping that the woman who got lost on John Legend’s set would make it. She seemed fun. How about you?

Fennessey: You’re referring to “Dallison,” which can’t be a real name. I was taken with another awkward white woman that John Legend didn’t choose: Elizabeth from Darien, Connecticut, who attends Harvard, wants to study pandas, and has Sarah Vaughan’s jazzy tone. Sad to see that nerd go.

Litman: This was my note about Elizabeth from Darien, Connecticut: “Can we let Harvard dominate singing shows too?” For a minute I thought she might make it as an unconventional choice, but then I quickly realized I was giving Duets and JL too much credit.

Fennessey: This world is too cruel for Elizabeth, Panda Doctor. Though I smell a spinoff.

Litman: She’s headed straight for the Discovery Channel, where they embrace redheads and pandas. What was your major takeaway from the show?

Fennessey: That I have no idea how one wins, but Kelly Clarkson is good people. And Robin Thicke’s hair is as lustrous as ever. What about you?

Litman: Mine is: Mark Burnett would never, ever let this happen. The voting situation is bizarre. Could the producers find no tech company who wanted to sponsor those tablets they use to vote? Instead, we just saw the show’s logo covering up the Apple logos.

Fennessey: In conclusion, will you be watching next week?

Litman: Yes, because I need to know if those rankings can really change. So much mystery, so little information. How about you?

Fennessey: I’ll be back. I always come back. Reality singing shows are like a deadbeat boyfriend for me. I never learn. Also, I need to see what shape Nettles contorts her face into next week.

Filed Under: ABC, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, Robin Thicke

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Juliet Litman works on the Grantland Quarterly.

Archive @ julietlitman

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