On Sunday night, ABC premiered a new singing show called Rising Star. Yes, another music competition. Can this latest entry in a crowded (and some would say fading) market do what The Next, Platinum Hit, P. Diddy's Starmaker, Redemption Song, ABC's own Kelly Clarkson/Robin Thicke/John Legend/Jennifer Nettles-helmed Duets, and even to some extent The X Factor could not — and actually stake out a credible place alongside American Idol and The Voice?
Well, maybe. It does have ex-Idol producer Ken Warwick and former Idol bandleader Ray Chew behind it, after all. Or… maybe not. While in some ways Rising Star's Sunday premiere was good TV, the problem was it wasn't great TV (like Idol on its best nights, or The Voice on most nights). Nor was it trainwrecky or campy enough to be hate-watch fodder (like The X Factor on certain nights, or Sing Your Face Off, or the Juan Pablo season of The Bachelor). It was just somewhere in between. Like the 70 percent of the vote needed for each auditioner to advance, Rising Star as a show got a solid grade of C.
To be fair, some things about the program worked well. Such as…
The App. As America's first truly interactive talent competition, Rising Star features live auditions, with viewers voting via a free smartphone app for each contestant's performance in real time. Yes, this can be a little complex. (The "70 percent" means 70 percent of app-users who've "checked in" and have committed to vote; users who check in and then fail to vote will have their acts of abstinence count as "no" votes; live voting outcomes can be changed after the fact by West Coast results, etc.) There's a lot of math involved. And when I'm watching mindless reality TV on a Sunday night, do I REALLY want to be bothered with math? No. But watching the percentage tallies of the auditioners on Sunday's premiere as they sang live (and watching the three celebrity judges weigh in with their own votes, which counted as 7 percent each) was good suspenseful fun — sort of what I imagine watching sports would be like, if I actually liked/watched sports.
The Wall. Some naysayers claim The Voice is gimmicky because of its spinning chairs. Well, forget about that small-scale furniture… Rising Star has an entire wall! Contestants performed behind a giant LED-illuminated barrier, only getting to "raise the wall" if they hit that 70 percent mark. I have to admit, the wall looked impressive. Now, if only someone would try out for the show with Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," Tom Petty's "Walls," Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls," or Scandal's "The Warrior" ("shooting down the walls of heartache, bang bang"). That would be awesome.
Josh Groban. The classical-crossover crooner was a slightly jittery but very affable emcee, keeping things running relatively smoothly on an opening night when really anything could have gone wrong. If (when?) this show gets canceled, Josh has a long future ahead of him as a TV host, if that whole 25-million-albums-selling singing career of his doesn't work out.
Jesse Kinch – This David Cassidy-haired, rock 'n' blues belter was the only truly memorable or unique contestant of the 10 total who sang on Sunday. Taking on probably the riskiest song of the episode, Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You," the born-in-the-wrong-decade 20-year-old let loose a fiery wail that Josh called a "beast on a leash" — an amusing contrast to Jesse's equally cool but extremely soft, laid-back speaking voice. Jesse had it all: sex appeal, soul, swag, and a strong set of pipes. Someone this season is going to win a deal with Capitol Records; I say just give the contract to Jesse now and call it a day.
Ludacris – Of the three judges (or "experts," as they're dubbed on this show), Luda was the only one really willing to outright criticize the contestants and play the Simon Cowell role — unlike Brad Paisley, who played it mostly safe, or
Ke$ha Kesha, who was strangely mute. (Maybe she was just seething in silence over the rude Bill Clinton joke Brad made at her expense?) Sure, it wasn't very nice when Luda openly gave some contestants the thumbs-down and encouraged the studio audience to boo, or when he practically bullied Brad and Kesha into voting against singers he didn't like. But at least he had opinions. And let's face it, his opinions were probably shared by many viewers at home.
The big issue was… there was a reason why Ludacris was so cross. The talent just wasn't up to par. Aside from Jesse, few singers really stood out or seemed like the types that would make it "through to Hollywood" on Idol, let alone get a single chair to turn on The Voice. And while some viewers no doubt watch these sorts of shows for the superstar judges, at the end of the day, it's really about (or should be about) the contestants. If Rising Star is going to rise to the top of the singing-show heap, it needs more Jesse Kinches.
You'll see what I mean if you check out these other auditions of the night...
Joshua Peavy – On other singing shows, going first is usually considered the "death spot." Not on this show. I think when the episode began, everyone — "experts" and fans alike — were just so gung ho to use the new app, they voted yes for everyone. It took almost an hour before any contestant scored less than 70 percent; before that, several so-so singers raised that wall. Joshua, who went first, was one of them, making it through with an overly generous 87 percent. The guy's Gokey-esque, everyman charm and relatable backstory (he's a youth pastor in a small, troubled Georgia town) probably had some trigger-fingered viewers ready to vote for him before he even warbled a note of his old-fashioned song choice, Bryan Adams's "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You." He was just a'ight, dawg. Brad even admitted that Joshua's pitch was not great, but added, "I don't care about that right now." And Brad calls himself an "expert"?
Lisa Punch – This Guyana-born girl, now living in a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with 12 family members, sure was cute. She seemed like a born performer. Too bad her vocals on "How Will I Know?" were nowhere near a Whitney Houston level. Lisa Punch basically sounded like she'd had the wind punched out of her. How did this girl get 80 percent? My only explanation is app fatigue had not yet set in. Lisa too benefited from an early performance slot.
Maneepat Myra Molloy – This Bangkok-born, 16-year-old YouTube star definitely stood out doing an Italian-language opera ballad, "Con Te Partiro." But she was no Jackie Evancho. Her pitch was all over the place, and she had the look of a deer in headlights, or of Cindy Brady on a quiz show. YET SHE STILL GOT 73 PERCENT OF THE VOTE. At least Ludacris had the sense to vote no, citing Maneepat's lack of stage presence. I just wish Josh Groban, who started as a teenage opera singer himself, had been allowed to vote on this one. I would've loved to know what he thought of Maneepat's chops.
Daniel & Olivia – The poor man's Alex & Sierra (or Dawn & Hawkes) were "adorkable," as Josh put it, but their vocals on OneRepublic's "Counting Stars" were almost unlistenable. Olivia is a vocal coach? And she's Daniel's vocal coach? The mind boggles. This was the first act to not make the cut, thanks probably in part to Ludacris's influence (he literally jumped out of his seat in disgust to jeer at them, then arm-wrestled Kesha's hand over to the "no" side of her voting screen). Luda later described their performance as "drunk karaoke," although he tried to soften that blow with a tossed-off "I don't mean to be rude." Oh, of course he didn't. But Daniel & Olivia were probably more saddened by their pathetic 6 percent score than by anything Ludacris said.
Beyond 5 – Josh had just announced that the Rising Star app had been downloaded 1 million times, and since it's assumed that most technology-savvy viewers are young, it seemed a given that this Nashville boy band would easily pass that 70 percent threshold. A couple of the boys were even kind of cute, particularly the one with the Harry Styles hair. But as it turned out, there was only one direction these kids were heading in: straight off the show. Even with Brad and Kesha voting yes for the group's "Wake Me Up" cover, Beyond 5 still only scored 46 percent of the vote. Apparently tweens out there aren't using that million-selling app, or they just aren't fans of boy bands that have decent harmonies but terrible, terrible solos. Wake me up when it's all over, indeed.
Sarah Darling – A 31-year-old Nashville veteran with two albums and a stint on a forgotten, Wayne Newton-hosted E! 2003 talent show called The Entertainer to her credit, Sarah was sure to be one of the darlings (pun intended) of the evening. Her cover of Kacey Musgraves's "Merry Go Round" was, as expected, polished, poised, professional, and pitch-perfect. All sorts of P-words. But it wasn't that powerful. There was no doubt that Sarah deserved her 89 percent tally (21 percent of which was due to the unanimous pro-Sarah vote from the judges), but — to quote a certain judge on Idol — I didn't get goosies. I need to see Sarah let it rip more in round two.
Colin Huntley – I thought this charming and confident 16-year-old, who covered Ed Sheeran's "Sing," would be a shoo-in with the little-girly voters. But like I said, either the girls haven't figured out how to use the Rising Star app yet, or they weren't impressed with a performance that was only slightly better than Sam Woolf's wooden Idol Season 13 version and was just too similar to Ed's original. The kid had talent, and was adorable, but his by-the-book cover was underwhelming. So Colin became the third rejected contestant of the night, with just a 38 percent vote. Brad told Colin to come back "in a couple years," but he may have been overly optimistic about Rising Star's future. Come on, the show had been on for maybe 90 minutes; it was a little too soon to predict it'd still be on the air in 2016, don't you think?
Summer Collins – I had high hopes for this "quirky girl," what with her Grace Potter spiral curls and Stevie Nicks cape and folksy interpretation of MKTO's "Classic." At least she tried to make a song her own, unlike copycat Colin. But Summer just was not quirky enough; she wasn't able to put her offstage personality into her just-OK performance. She received Kesha's 7 percent vote, but still ended up with a mere overall score of 40. And thus, Summer's dreams were ripped at the seams.
Macy Kate – Macy was one of several people who'd tried out for the show via Instagram video and was sitting in the studio audience Sunday, waiting for a chance to perform onstage. Josh ambushed the 16-year-old to tell her she was the night's chosen one, and if she was a plant (which she probably was), then she's as good an actress as she is a singer, because the girl freaked the frick out. Even her mom seemed totally flustered by Josh's surprise, or "surprise." Macy then headed backstage for a whirlwind rehearsal session with Ray Chew, pulled it together, and came out at the end of the night for a suspiciously self-assured performance of Rixton's "Me and My Broken Heart." She certainly seemed like she'd been rehearsing for more than 10 minutes. There was something a bit too Disney-princessy and jazz-handsy about Macy, but she definitely deserved to advance. Did she deserve to get the highest score of the night — 93, just edging out Jesse Kinch's 92 percent? I don't know about that. But it's not like she had much competition other than Jesse, really.
So there you have it. It remains to be seen if Rising Star will rise or sink as the season goes on. But if ABC execs really want the show to succeed, then it's the talent level, not a fancy LED wall, that really needs to be raised.