If virtually all reality shows can be boiled down to preexisting movies or series, “The Choir” lands squarely in the “To Sir, With Love” meets “Glee” category. Clearly, this BBC America series could hardly be better timed, and has an extremely appealing leading man in choir master Gareth Malone, who is 30 but looks a decade younger. Broken into three separate missions, the 13-episode run has already been a hit in the U.K. and should have its U.S. counterpart humming a happy tune as well.
Malone initially descends on Northholt High, trying to mold the students at this blue-collar, ethnically diverse school into a functioning group able to “compete with the best classical choirs in the world” by participating in a “choir Olympics” in China.
The first of the four hours is largely devoted to auditions, followed by Malone’s frustrations as he tries to prepare the kids, before chronicling their trip abroad. The second and third tasks involve establishing a choir at an all-boys school and creating children and adults’ groups in an economically depressed community.
Thin, spectacled and pale, Malone looks the part of someone who would say that listening to bad R&B renditions is “like having my teeth pulled out.” As these things go, however, he can fake sincerity with the best of them, and seems every bit as committed to advancing choirs as Jamie Oliver is to eliminating fatty foods.
If “The Choir” hits a flat note, it’s in the initial group of kids, whose personalities aren’t particularly drawn out by the four-episode format, which includes a return to check in on where they are a year later. In the hands of U.S. producers, more attention would have been placed on casting those “characters” and teasing out every last ounce of emotion.
The welcome trade-off is that the program ultimately has a more natural feel than most American reality (or nonfiction, if you prefer) while still deftly presenting a message of uplift and camaraderie developed through music — even if the classically trained Malone has to fudge by having his charges sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from Disney’s “The Lion King.”
“The Choir” precedes an onslaught of unscripted specials on BBC America in August (including “Baby Beauty Queens” and “Baby Birthday Bashes”), reminding us that the Brits aren’t all about fabulous costume dramas and “Doctor Who.”
Ultimately, “The Choir” doesn’t soar, but it does draw you into its rhythms. And the bottom line is having a TV show right now in which fresh-faced kids glee-fully burst into song — on either side of the pond — isn’t a bad place to be.