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NBC Unleashes 'Singing Bee'; America Breaks Out in Hives

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Some bad shows call for essentially gentle, friendly warnings. A network unleashes another blundered clunker that will hardly be noticed and never be missed, and the critic sounds a mild alarm. But then, on occasion, one faces something akin to a toxic waste spill. Temperate caution is inadequate; the event calls more for panicked cries of "Run for your lives!," aching moans of "Not since 'My Mother the Car' " and sundry screams of bloody murder.

Not that there are any bloody murders in "The Singing Bee," a new NBC calamity premiering tonight and thus beating to the air by a day Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" -- a game show with a format, according to industry buzz, nearly identical to that of "Singing Bee." At least NBC had the courage, foolhardy or not, to let critics see "Singing Bee" in advance, whereas Fox is keeping "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" under wraps -- and under lock and key -- until air time, the gutless wonders.

What's so bad about "The Singing Bee"? Just about everything; the producers have seen to that. Just in case any sort of charm or merriment might have somehow broken through, they hired as host former boy-band singer Joey Fatone (whom wags mischievously dubbed "Joey Fat One" for his increased size, before he returned from merciful obscurity to do calorie-burning battle on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars").

So he thinks he can host? The poor sap can't ad-lib anything beyond "oh, boy," and to call him mechanical would be to insult millions of reliable, hard-working machines throughout the world. Such shows as "The Singing Bee" might celebrate amateurism, but that homage really ought to end just before you get to the alleged star. The producers might have had better luck if they'd grabbed someone at random off the studio tour and plopped a microphone in his hand.

Herewith a confession: I've been avoiding the hardly herculean task of describing the show. It's primitively simple yet manages also to be tipsily confused. "You don't have to sing it well, you just have to sing it right," Fatone tells the contestants, thus uttering what might pass as the show's mantra. Contestants must supply one or two lines of missing lyrics from a pop song of the past 30 years or so, singing them after the house band and a stock singer or two disgorge the first few lines and then abruptly stop.

Perhaps it is some kind of enviable talent just to be able to decipher the lyrics to modern songs, much less know them by heart and be able to sing them back. The popularity of karaoke bars must play some role in this. Even in the days of great pop stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Judy Garland, when simple diction was a prerequisite for success, your average Joe or Janet had a fairly tough time memorizing song lyrics. (And not only amateurs: Andy Williams was notorious for clinging to cue cards like a baby to a bottle.)

For whatever reason, the rules are ridiculously strict on this. Contestants take a whack at Bananarama's 1986 cover of "Venus" two, three, four, even five times before getting it correct enough to win. (They repeatedly forget to include the "at" in the phrase "at your desire" -- big deal!) Asking people to remember the words to a dance tune such as "Maniac" -- when no one paid any attention to the words in the first place -- is typical of the show's thick-headedness.

In the second round of questioning, the hoary old newspaper game "Jumble" is revived to add some pitiful version of variety to the monotonous show. While contestants listen to a song's beginning, the lyrics to the next line are printed on the screen. But here's the big twist: They're all mixed up! Oh, the humanity!

Fatone says: "Trust me; it's harder than it looks." It probably is, but pointlessly so. An unexpected ZZ Top lyric ("Lord, take me downtown, I'm just lookin' for some tush") is indeed hard to decipher when displayed in big block letters while the band and singers are bellowing the song's first few lines in your ears).

Believe it or not, there are all sorts of interlocking ironies associated with this whimpering lost puppy of a show. At one point, NBC actually had it slotted on the network's 2007-08 fall schedule (NBC mastermind Jeff Zucker has said, almost belligerently, that he's abandoned the first hour of prime time to cheap reality shows, game shows and reality game shows). Then NBC learned that Fox's version was going to beat NBC's to the air; with only weeks until the air date, and although the series was still hostless, NBC moved "Bee" to summer.

Whether it will last until the fall seems doubtful. It does have an advantageous lead-in, the popular "America's Got Talent," but advantageousness can be illusory (actually, just about everything in network television can be illusory, including its future beyond, say, next week.)

If networks are going to waste time, money and studio space on losers as lame as "The Singing Bee," they'll hasten their own demise more effectively and self-destructively than the craziest of ancient Roman rulers trashed the empire. There's a reality game show for you: Which network executive will prove to be the biggest, if hardly the noblest, Nero of them all?

The Singing Bee (one hour) debuts tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4.

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