Generic, inept and occasionally offensive, ABC’s “Rising Star” is the definition of trainwreck television. A live singing competition show launched at the exact moment the genre is experiencing a perilous downslide, the only innovation here is a silly real-time voting conceit. Even by the lowered standards of summer programming, it’s hard to imagine this “Star” going anywhere but down in the ratings every week.
Things couldn’t have started any worse for the two-hour live premiere as every word affably amateurish host Josh Groban uttered in the first five minutes had to compete with inexplicably blaring background music.
Groban introduced the show’s random trio of “experts” (i.e. judges) — country star Brad Paisley, hip-hop mogul Ludacris and dance pop princess Ke$ha — and immediately insulted the tacky set design with a botched joke, “[It's] like an airport lounge, you guys are waiting for snacks.”
After Paisley let loose with a self-aggrandizing anecdote about flying on Air Force One with the President, Groban asked Ke$ha if she had ever “hung out” with Barack Obama. Paisley interrupted to crack, “I think Bill Clinton’s her type.” (Hillary’s team must have loved that little ad lib.) Groban fumbled for a transition. That’s live TV, folks.
Things only got worse when the performers took the stage. Looking and sounding like a motley mix of rejects from “The Voice,” “American Idol,” the now-canceled “X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent” (which NBC aired opposite the “Rising Star” premiere in an attempt to blunt the impact; based on the soft launch results, they needn’t have bothered), there wasn’t a single obvious star-in-the-making among them.
Not that the hopefuls were done any favors by the 90-second time limit and the hyperactive production’s attempt to draw a viewer’s attention to anything but the actual singing.
Based on a popular Israeli format, votes are instantly tabulated via an app, so anyone watching at home can “check-in” and cast a “yes” or a “no” for any performer during the minute and a half that person is on stage. As long as the yays top 70% by the end, the contestant is safe. (The judges are granted 7% of the vote each, not enough to make or break anyone.)
That means in addition to “watching” the performance, the audience is simultaneously invited to watch their app, or watch how the judges vote, or watch the real-time vote meter rise next to the performer, or watch “The Wall” — a giant video screen blocking the contestant from the audience until their vote passes 70% and it rises.
The ADD approach reps pandering to the social media generation, and never gels with the otherwise thoroughly square production values and cast of competitors. With younger viewers already bailing on the genre, an interactive app isn’t likely to lure them back.
Neither will the embarrassingly phony attempt at plucking an “unsuspecting” member of the audience to join in the auditions. The young woman selected had applied via Instagram with a Rebecca Black-style elaborately produced amateur music video, but the producers still tried to make her appearance look spontaneous. Poor Groban actually had to deliver the line, “You’ve gone from a spectator to a contestant in the blink of an eye.”
Forced attempts at “Voice”-like banter between the judges unsurprisingly fell flat amid the chaos, and none of the three demonstrated a flair for punchy sound-bite criticism. (At least Ke$ha wisely addressed the elephant in the room about her suitability as a judge with the self-deprecating admission, “I’ve been on the stage before and been laughed off.”)
There’s always a degree of exploitation in the way contestants trot out personal tragedies to lobby for votes on these shows, but “Rising Star” proves notably egregious in that department. Sob stories involving death or poverty factored into a disturbingly high volume of the pre-performance introductory packages.
As a host, Groban is roughly 101 on a list of the show’s top 100 problems (the grating theme song and haphazard camera work need to be remedied stat). Still, the successful singer — who would’ve made a perfectly sane choice for one of the judges’ chairs — looked decidedly flustered at several points during the premiere, as if he only just realized he’s been tasked with steering the Titanic straight towards the iceberg.