It’s an interesting choice, to make a singing competition TV show with hardly any good singing in it. It’s also the only interesting thing about The Four, a clunky The Voice knockoff and the first thing to make the upcoming American Idol revival seem like a good idea.
Fox’s much ballyhooed reality show premiered Thursday night with all the wanton confidence of a wrecking ball—and nearly as destructive. A cacophony of celebrity ego, bombastic production, and misguided cruelty, The Four purports to reinvent the singing-competition TV series for a modern audience and industry but is actually the worst kind of derivative: the kind with the irritating braggadocio of thinking it’s fresh. And, because it bears repeating, it doesn’t even showcase much good singing!
To be fair, the series is upfront in admitting that this is intentional. “I’m looking for someone who isn’t necessarily the greatest singer in the world,” Charlie Walk, a record executive and one of the judges, said at the top of the show. Mission accomplished, I guess.
The premise of the show is that there are four singers, the titular “The Four,” who each week are challenged by contestants who want to take one of their spots. At the end of the six-week series, one of the remaining The Four will win the show, presumably after defending their spot from a slew of challengers.
The Grand Prize made me laugh out loud when host Fergie announced it: a career guided by the show’s four judges. No explicit record contract! No money! Just the mentorship of four judges who are 100 percent going to forget about said winner faster than the viewing audience will. And if the last decade of TV singing competitions is anything to go by, audiences tend to forget about them pretty damn fast!
Diddy doesn’t do much more than scream about how he wants to see greatness. He never actually defines what he means by that, but when it comes to finding greatness, we trust the guy who assembled iconic girl group Danity Kane. Trainor is polite and nothing more. DJ Khaled, whose appeal has always baffled me, sees the effectiveness of schtick laid bare here, with his emphatically delivered, essentially meaningless maxims ill-suited in a forum that is meant to administer nuanced advice and criticism.
Fergie hosts the show as if she is discovering the English language for the first time each time she reads the teleprompter. She looks amazing though, but we were expecting a little more polish from the former host of gone-too-soon late-‘90s Fox Family series Great Pretenders. The hosting talents of Ryan Seacrest are often underappreciated, but the tricky balance of keeping a major production moving seamlessly while also establishing a rapport with the judges and genuine connection with contestants is necessary to make shows like these enjoyable. Without that, there’s a coldness to them that’s extremely off-putting. The Four is downright chilly.
The convoluted rules of the show are so wonky that Fergie had to remind us of them after each commercial break. It’s overcompensation for the fact that the show is a blatant rip-off of The Voice’s battle rounds, as if complicated rules would eventually twist itself into a blindfold so that we wouldn’t see the connection.
After a contestant performs for the judges, the judges must determine if he or she earns the right to challenge one of The Four. For each judge that says yes, a blue ring, for some reason, appears around the singer on the floor. For each no, a red ring appears. All four judges have to say yes in order for the singer to be allowed to challenge one of The Four.
When one of The Four is chosen, they sing a song, the contestant sings again, and then it’s the audience who votes for the winner who gets to either stay or become a member of The Four, not the judges. Then the winner draws a Wicked Wango card and we’re all Bamboozled. (Topical Friends reference, guys.)
“This is not like those other shows,” Diddy says into the camera at one point, referencing Idol and The Voice but apparently oblivious to the fact that it is exactly like those other shows. There’s the same saccharine packages with the contestants’ sob stories. There’s the same corny group performances. There’s the same miscalculation that judge banter is more interesting than contestants singing...on a singing TV show.
To be fair, this isn’t like American Idol, with its endless parade of Celine Dion and Stevie Wonder covers. The first contestant performs “Talk Dirty” by Jason Derulo, which certainly is a choice. Khalid, French Montana, and, yep, DJ Khaled are other song choices. It’s hard not to notice, however, that the show finally came alive when the last contestant walked on stage and performed “Run to You” by Whitney Houston. Who’d have thought that good singing would make for good TV on a TV show about finding a singer?
Possibly the only interesting element is the series’ embrace of hip-hop, with a female MC as one of The Four. Named Lex Lu, she’s the most entertaining of The Four that we met in the premiere. The whole idea of The Four seems poorly conceived. Throughout the two-hour premiere, the judges keep talking about the greatness of The Four, but having not heard them perform we’re basically supposed to just believe them. There is something cult-like about it.
The show also shoots itself in the foot by design. It’ll have to hobble along on its mission to find a superstar the public will care about, considering that, with this concept of an ever-changing The Four, audiences can’t invest in the singers because they’re not the same each week. There’s no journey or narrative to follow them on. We’d venture that whenever the winner is crowned, they will be met with a giant shrug.
What struck us the most about the series, though, is its mean-spiritedness. When The Four is being challenged, the judges goad both parties to taunt and insult each other. It’s a lot of stock to place in the appeal of trash talk, and the more the singers peacock around stage the more we want to change the channel. It’s bizarre to have these schmaltzy, inspirational packages introducing these singers, and then 30 seconds later have them act like assholes.
Kelly Clarkson would never.