Karaoke in its purest form isn’t meant to be “accurate.” Even if an amazing singer steps up to the plate and crushes their song of choice, the best karaoke runs on enthusiasm and a willingness to look ridiculous. Anyone who’s thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the ridiculous challenge of singing to a sparse backing track for a crowd of friends and strangers likely knows the thrill of watching nailing a performance regardless of whether or not they know all the words or hit all the notes. As long as you embrace the fun of the experience, you can be great at karaoke.
In that respect, “Sing On!” should not work. The new karaoke competition show — anchored by “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” star Tituss Burgess as host — prizes accuracy above all. In a move reminiscent of the video game “Rock Band,” contestants sing hit songs while a graphic at the bottom of the screen tracks how close they are to hitting the right notes and intonation of the original track. While each of the 8 episodes has a theme, some are looser than others. (“Love Songs” could mean anything, “Country” less so, and so on.) Over the course of the season, we see many people with great voices go home after forgetting exactly how the song goes or for getting too fancy with their own renditions along the way. This setup is entirely against the spirit of what makes karaoke so entertaining in real life — but as a reality show, it’s hard to deny that the conceit ultimately succeeds.
There are a couple key factors that keep “Sing On!” from being a relentless buzzkill. For one, Burgess is the perfect host for the occasion thanks to his sunny charisma and uncanny ability to belt just about any song in the known universe. For another, the structure of the show is smart in a way that many burgeoning reality shows rarely are. In each episode, six contestants play for the possibility of winning $60,000, but the overall pot of money is the result of how they all do as a collective throughout the competition. The first knockout rounds see the most accurate person remaining safe before everyone votes on who should go home, usually resulting in a mix of “your bad performance cost us money” and “you’re too good and I need you gone” justifications. The next round sees the least accurate singer automatically going home, before the last two standing go head to head in a final battle. Along the way, there are bonus cash prizes and a prize Burgess can bestow upon the singer who most impresses him, an unabashedly subjective award he throws around with delighted abandon.
While it’s undeniably bittersweet to watch people able to do and enjoy karaoke, arguably the very last group activity anyone will be able to do in a post-COVID world, “Sing On!” is a breezy, engaging distraction. Not even a ruthless algorithm can completely squash the elastic entertainment that is someone singing their heart out just because they can.
“Sing On!” premieres Wednesday, September 16 on Netflix.