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'Office' teamwork keeps everyone in rhythm

June 28, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

In "The Singing Office," ex-Spice Girl Melanie "Mel B" Brown (no longer Scary, now Nice) and goofy 'N Sync vet Joey Fatone invade ordinary workplaces to field teams of vocalists to compete in a choreographed sing-off. (Finalists split $50,000.) The show, which premieres Sunday on TLC, is everything I think reality television should be and so often is not: straightforward, down-to-earth, concerned with the corners of a world that, even in extraordinary circumstances, is recognizably one we inhabit ourselves. Its small budget and modest ambitions only increase its appeal.

I love it.

Some, perhaps not many, will recall last fall's similar "Clash of the Choirs." Like most modern TV game shows, it was built on the scale of a Las Vegas hotel, pumped up with glamour and glitz. (It was pretty good, notwithstanding.) The purse there was five times greater, the choirs much larger, the involved celebrities marginally more celebrated, the competition national, the network broadcast-major. "The Singing Office" is a little motor lodge with hand-sewn curtains by comparison.

In Sunday's opener, Mel draws her five-person team from the ranks of 1-800-DENTIST, while Joey scouts the Allen Edwards hair salon. (Future battling workplaces include JetBlue, the L.A. Zoo, Sit 'N Sleep and Horace Mann elementary school.) Management and labor alike are encouraged to sing from provided lyric sheets -- "Like a Virgin," "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," "I Say a Little Prayer." Some shrink: "Why is everyone zoomin' away from me?" Mel B pants as she races among the cubicles looking for prospects.

There is more talent than you might suspect hidden behind the walls of a place like 1-800-DENTIST. Even people inside the walls seem surprised by that fact, and their evident shared delight in the discovery is one of the nicest things in the show. The best of these singers would not make it through the "American Idol" auditions, as plainly expressive as some are; the least would be crushed in short order. But even the tone deaf come off as endearing here. Humiliation is not on the program. Sweetness reigns.

The teams are sent to a two-day "boot camp," where in astonishingly quick time they learn what look like fairly complicated routines. (Team Mel performs the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself," Team Joey "Zoot Suit Riot," by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies.) Then they go head to head before a live audience, which picks the winner. Because the singers are not the self-selecting semipros of other TV talent shows but rather the random product of an ambush, their detour into show business has no hint of desperation; the noise is just joyful. Nobody here is trying to get famous, though all are excited enough to be in the contest. "I want us to kick the living, slimy stink out of that other team," says Team Mel's Fatima.

As a community portrait -- a picture of people of different ages, aptitudes and positions in the corporate hierarchy bonding over a shared project -- it's the reality show as quirky small-town comedy. "The Singing Office" also reminds us that the office space itself is not necessarily the airless, soul-deadening purgatory of popular culture. (Blame "Office Space" and Ricky Gervais.) It's where everyone not cursed with great inherited wealth will spend at least some of their lives, probably make friends, possibly find satisfaction.

The producers do a good job of capturing personalities in short order, but don't lean on sentiment. We do learn that one singer has just gone through a divorce, one has fibromyalgia and another is engaged to the mail-room manager, but it doesn't get much heavier than that. Drama comes down to the questions of whether Vanessa will hit her big note and Allen get his timing right.

That they are pressed to or beyond the limit of their abilities is what makes the show exciting and easy to relate to. And it matters too that they're doing it in public. "I've never experienced anything like that in my life," exults 1-800-DENTIST operator Jamaine after his three minutes upon the stage. "To have all those people stand up -- yes!"



'The Singing Office'

Where: TLC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG-D-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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