By the time this appears in print, NBC's "Clash of the Choirs," the latest bit of unscripted ritualized conflict from network television -- and a harbinger, you can bet your universal remote -- will have run through half of its brief, four-night life. (It is going up against ABC's six-night "Duel.") One of the five competing choirs will have already been voted off the show -- by you, America.
Produced by BBC Worldwide, which also brought you "Dancing With the Stars," "Choirs" has been based on a "format" created by the Swedish company Friday TV. ("Our goal is to be Scandinavia's market leading supplier of TV-formats," it says on its website.) Celebrity singers Michael Bolton, Patti LaBelle, Nick Lachey, Kelly Rowland and Blake Shelton returned to their hometowns (New Haven, Conn.; Philadelphia; Cincinnati; Houston; and Oklahoma City, respectively) to organize "amateur" choirs from the ordinary citizenry and in short order turn total strangers into well-oiled, professional-quality performing units.
Positioned as a kind of extended Christmas special (with "songs guaranteed to put you in the holiday mood"), the show is thick with inspirational uplift and regional spirit. Its arms are stretched wide enough to hold "the troops," God and Hurricane Katrina and the whole nation. "Living in America / Got to have a celebration," the massed choirs, 100 strong, sang to open the show. The winner gets to donate $250,000 to a favorite local charity.
Although the participants have been obviously chosen for their ability -- this is a competition, after all -- they have not necessarily been chosen for ability alone. There is plenty of bite-sized back story, here, the kind of just-add-tears instant "narrative" the viewer fleshes out himself. Here are a father and daughter, whose mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Here's a lady who's 77. (She has been dubbed the "Silver Fox.") This man thought he was out but at the last minute he was in. This woman got her first kiss from Nick Lachey when they were kids. ("Aaah-haaah, haah, heh," said Nick when she introduced herself.) These two guys are in the Army. One woman just lost 140 pounds, another was a victim of domestic abuse. This one survived Katrina. "Feel good" always feels a little better when there's a little bad in the mix.
Apart from the usual audition footage of hopefuls who have no sense at all of their limitations and are therefore fair game for our derision, the show is a love fest. (Popular audition songs: "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the biggest hit of whatever star the applicant was singing for.) In place of the tribunal of doom that chairs most such competitions, "Choirs" oddly asks the choirmasters themselves to comment on the performances of the other teams, with the not-unexpected result that nothing is offered but praise. "I feel if I don't say something positive, somebody's going to throw something at my head," said Rowland, possibly only half-joking.
It would be easy enough to mock the thing -- for its relentless "Up With People" positivity, its manipulative streak and most especially its position at the leading edge of the new writer-less TV universe. (Though it was surely coincidence, I couldn't help but notice the timely lines in Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," sung by "Team Bolton," about Tommy, whose "union's been on strike," keeping him idle.) The performances, highly choreographed with hip thrusts and shoulder rolls and theatrically outstretched hands, do not prize subtlety; there is no lack of the punishing melisma that today has become musical code for "feeling it" -- never sing one note where six will do.
But why cavil? Everyone here is likable, the celebrities (even the slightly odd ones) and the ordinary folk, who come in a wider variety of shapes and sizes and ages than these shows usually allow. Its silliness does not make it any less grand. There is something irresistible in that massed vocal sound, something primal in such a big, cooperative human noise that transcends both the material and the commercial occasion. As Labelle said after her choir got through with "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" (the night's most obvious selection and best arrangement), "I feel all good."
'Clash of the Choirs'
When: 8 to 10 tonight; final competition 8 to 9 Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)