The big question at the outset of Season Three of The Voice is how would the show up the ante and give viewers a reason not to switch to X Factor in hopeful anticipation of a Brit-Brit meltdown? The strategy seems to be “bigger equals better.” Starting with an epic three-night season premier of blind auditions, the judges – Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine – will now cull the massive pool of hopefuls into four teams of 16 (up from 12 last season and eight originally), making the season longer, elimination rounds endless and competition more cutthroat.
Monday’s premiere demonstrated how the show’s producers plan to combat what could easily develop into audience fatigue: teenage tears. Over the course of last season the show started listing ever so slightly towards the proven American Idol zone of milking the tragic backstory to raise the stakes – in particular the constant mentions of Jesse Campbell’s past as a homeless single father living out of his car – and in Season Three, they are just going HAM with it. The set-up video for 16-year-old Garrett Gardner’s Joe-Cocker-goes-emo revision of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” had him addressing his dead father; when he failed to turn a single judge’s chair he broke down sobbing about the loss of his dad. As would become a pattern throughout the evening, Christina rushed the stage to hug and console him. The Voice producers need to introduce a “retroactive sympathy chair turn” for occasions such as these.
It’s easier to pinpoint who didn’t cry: Gracia Harrison, proud winner of many county fair singing competitions in downstate Illinois, pulled a solid three chairs – Cee Lo, Adam and Blake – with her full-tilt hee-haw gangster move of yodeling. Blake nabbed her for his team by telling her she’s what country radio needs (if only!). No tears for sassy neon-clad child-of-pastors De’Borah, representing for Chicago, who landed on Team Christina with a reworked “Hey, Soul Sister,” and had the most winning b-roll of the night, announcing “BOOM! I’m gay.” In a just world she’d devastate the semi-finals with some network-bleeped take on “Novacane.”
Adam, unsurprisingly, began filling out his team with bromance with one quasi-emo rock band frontman in Joe Kirkland, and losing the most typical Team Adam contender to Blake: Terry McDermott, a Scottish dad who sports matching Bay City Rollers hair with his five-year-old-son and is a total faux-Bono, the most potent Adam-bait of all.
Then it was back to the high drama weeping. The lone four-chair-turning contestant was Bryan Keith, who landed on Adam’s team. Keith is the proud son of two-time Grammy winning singer Ray de la Paz, and he refused his dad’s music-biz connections in favor trying to make it on his own. Keith is notable for his raspy, soulful voice and being the first person of dozens this season who will say that getting this far “feels like a dream.” Daniel Rosa, who pulled no chairs in his audition last season, got two upon his return (Cee Lo and Blake) by wisely gaming the system with “Somebody That I Used to Know,” done slinky and soulful, and then had to sit down, he was so overcome. (A surefire way to get Cee Lo to turn is to do a contemporary hit in a different genre arrangement. If someone does “We Are Young” as a reggae ballad, dude will probably combust in his chair). They really strung out the backstage nervousness video, and lingering shots of Christina’s hand hovering over her button even resulted in some Jaws-esque interstitial music – as if anyone thought they’d bring him back a second time just to reject him.
Anita Antoinette, fresh outta Berklee, won no chairs with her technically perfect but kinda dull rendition of dorm-room fave “No Woman, No Cry.” The cutaways showed Cee Lo and Adam, musing from behind their chairs about how this song can’t be sung, it has to be felt. When they turned, they said as much, telling Antionette they didn’t sense a connection to the material. And what, pray tell, was her connection to the song? She grew up in crushing poverty in Jamaica, listening to this record – an answer that was more embarrassing for the judges than her. She then asked if just for the hell of it, she could sing it a cappella. She sang through her tears, Christina shivered and the others visibly rued that thing they’d just said about her not being able to sell the song. One imagines we will see her in the semi-finals of Season Four, after beating out her 122 other teammates.
As if we would ever expect any different, they left us with a triumphant shy-guy powerhouse, FAME school alumnus and first-gen American, Trevin Hunte, who might be the he-diva that reps Team Cee Lo in the finals. Only, like, 91 more blind auditions to go until we find out!
Most egregious dramatic re-enactment: Hunte’s garbageman father shown taking out the trash and putting it, inexplicably, into a passenger van. Faithfully demonstrating just what it means to be the trashman to better his son’s chances at winning The Voice.
Most difficult-to-believe hardship back story: TeamXtina’s model-pretty Devyn Deloera’s woeful tale of homeschooling making her socially awkward. Last night she tweeted that The Voice band was the best band of all time. Someone should really get her a copy of Led Zeppelin II.
Most unintentionally hilarious realtalk: Country gal Jessica Sharpe glaring at the camera and announcing, “I guess I’ll just go back to doin’ hair and singin’ in a cover band,” after a middling “Son of a Preacher Man.”
Coach: Adam Levine
Why: He managed to nab Bryan Keith, the only singer to get all four judges to turn around, and do it without the usual supplication and/or whining.
Coach: Blake Shelton
Why: His strategy of turning early and often has served him well; his enthusiasm often reads as a genuine vote of confidence to the eager young contestants.
Coach: Christina Aguilera
After last’s season’s parade of back-door brags, Jesse Campbell’s unceremonious elimination and her sniping with Adam, Xtina seems like she is trying to show us her softer side, clomping up the stage in her Manolos to hug stunned, weeping contestants. She gave us an unexpected glimpse of her mom side.
Coach: Cee Lo Green
While Cee Lo has a rep for being the most hands on mentor behind-the-scenes, there seems to be some hesitation in contestants wanting to be on his team. Maybe it’s a natural distrust of men who wear sundowner shades indoors? Regardless, his ensemble – white satin jammies with a pirate collar and a flounce – was gametight.