By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; C01
Twenty or so years ago, when it was clear that Americans were busily creating the cutest and most coddled babies ever born, some of us wondered: What will all these cherubs grow up to be?
I, for one, would not have answered "a cappella singers," but that's because I grew up in a nasty, gloomy era when teenagers and college students would have hurled themselves into a pit of tarantulas before joining the school choir.
But a cappella is apparently the answer, and it is here to stay. We live now in the age of Way, Way Up with People, and you have to wonder if future sociologists will connect all our singing shows (and dancing shows, and all the shaking of our motion-sensitive microphones and Wii wands and plastic guitars at home, and all those dormitory "lip dub" videos) as the means by which we dealt with the horrible idea that our world was falling to pieces. In other words: They all died singing.
And so, returning once more to the moonily emotive faces, sweeping hand gestures and matching argyle sweaters of NBC's engagingly happy "The Sing-Off" (the second season of which begins Monday night), I find myself charmed by its radiant dork beams of energy. Hooray for Yuppet Babies!
Being a bona fide competition among 10 real a cappella groups, "The Sing-Off" is different than the irony-laden, post-gay phantasmagoria of Fox's "Glee," which has become so annoying this season that it deserves every wet-spaghetti-noodle sting of backlash that it is receiving.
There are similarities, of course: "The Sing-Off" mines "Glee's" most fertile territory - amateur showmanship as the key to all that is right and good about life, or something like that.
The teams are as varied as Yale's vaunted Whiffenpoofs (boo, hiss!) to a group of older a cappella cats from Oakland called Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town, who charm the audience with old style doo-wop. There's also a group of well-scrubbed singing fraternity boys from the University of Oregon, called On the Rocks; if not for the Lady Gaga song choice and YouTube following, these boys might have been teleported here from a 1961 ice-cream social.
At least half of the teams competing on "The Sing-Off" clearly never miss an episode of "Glee," and from it they have gleeked a sense of ambitious staging, as well as a worldview: There is peace and happiness when misfits harmonize. There's even Eleventh Hour, a high school group from Ohio, made up of "Breakfast Club" archetypes (The jock! The computer nerd! The homecoming queen! The shy girl!), who refer to themselves as the real-life "Glee."
Thus, "The Sing-Off" is cuteness atop cuteness - and after the Bataan death march that turned out to be this season of "Dancing With the Stars" (along with lackluster state of things on "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent" and "So You Think You Can Dance"), it seems almost impossibly pure and cleansing. It's like "The Amazing Race" of the talent-competition craze, in that its aim seems true and stripped of extraneous nonsense.
The show's judges (Ben Folds, an alt-rock tunesmith; Nicole Scherzinger, a Pussycat Doll; and Shawn Stockman, one of the Boyz II Men, the ur-cappella 1990s group) rarely, if ever, mug for the camera or turn their critiques into phony paroxysms. Its host, Nick Lachey, is at last comfortable with his destiny as a piece of cardboard.
Just as much of a blessing is that "The Sing-Off" will accomplish everything it sets out to do in a mere five episodes (Monday and Wednesday of this week; then Dec. 13 and 15; with a live finale on Dec. 20) instead of the usual 117 episodes that are normal to this genre. The judges are trusted to do what they must do and winnow the field efficiently - then and and only then will you be asked to partake in the live episode by casting your all-important opinion of who should win.
For once, stardom doesn't appear to be the goal in "The Sing-Off," so much as the fleeting, ephemeral beauty of a song well sung. The winning team will get some sort of record deal and a wad of cash that, once split among all the members, will merely cause a minor tax headache. On Monday night, when the six members of a Nashville-based a cappella group, the Street Corner Symphony, sing their transcendent rendition of Tears for Fears's "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," it doesn't seem like such a bad idea to have talent shows on TV, or to live in an age when every other person is dying to burst out in song.
The Sing-Off (two hours) returns Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC.