ABC clearly invested good money in developing Duets‘ unimonikered emcee Quddus. Unlike the hostbots of many competing reality-competition series, Quddus convincingly exhibits lifelike qualities such as humor, empathy, and even sarcasm. He’s also programmed for basic math skills and an uncanny ability to process and respond to stimuli taking place in front of him. Yes, reality TV fans, the future is here, and DWTS‘ Robo Brooke Burke might be scheduled for a summer “vacation” at the Pentium plant.
Quddus kicked off Week 2 by trying to explain how the hell this show actually works, something nobody bothered to do at any point during last week’s two-hour premiere. We’ve got eight amateurs, performing duets with their superstar mentors for three straight weeks and getting “secret scores” from their competing mentors; in Episode 3, the Bottom 2 contestants will perform an a capella singoff, and one of ‘em will get the boot. And then in Week 6, viewers get to vote, though it’s unclear if judges’ scores will continue to be a factor, or how many people will go home per week. Is it possible ABC is just making up the rules as they go? Quddus isn’t going to that question no matter how many times you ask: His name is not Siri.
Also unclear: What happened to John Legend’s Week 1 contestant Johnny Gray. He had to leave the competition but we didn’t get any details on the hows and whys. Did he break some kind of rule in his ABC contract? Was he overheard backstage calling “Ordinary People” a dreary slice of neo-soul treacle? Is his head on a spike at the Mud Gate? We may never know.
Whatever the case, let’s do a quick assessment of how the eight contestants fared in Week 2, during which they had to cover classic duets. And, lest you start thinking I’m the crankiest recapper alive, let me note that the second half of the telecast was considerably stronger than the first:
Bridget Carrington (with John Legend): “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” | The judges seemed to think this week’s Aretha Franklin-George Michael ditty was a better fit for Bridget’s voice than her Week 1 number, but I still felt like there was too much quaver and not enough oomph to leave me with any other feeling than “the Queen of Soul would not approve.” I mean, if this was a VH1 Divas Live show, Miss Aretha’s death glare would’ve been the chancla sending hellion child Bridget (and her hideous blue mylar dress) to the naughty corner somewhere backstage. Bonus points to Quddus, though, for joking that the revelation of Bridget’s spot atop the leaderboard was “anticlimactic” — since, as the night’s opening act, she didn’t yet have any competition.
Jordan Meredith (with Kelly Clarkson): “Misery” | Kelly seems like a sweet and very invested mentor. Offering a pep talk to Jordan and teammate Jason Farol, Kelly noted they were probably the least experienced vocalists in the competition, but since they had no control over such matters, they needed to focus on the variables within their grasp. “What we have control over is sounding awesome!” Kelly said, with none of the jadedness you’d expect from a seasoned vet of the music industry and the reality TV business. Unfortunately, though, while having Kelly as a mentor might be a plus, having Kelly as a duet partner is a trickier proposition. Jordan’s got solid chops, but when Kelly came in on the second verse, I was all “OOOH GIRL, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” The Lady Clarkson has such soul and power and grit that Jordan’s big notes seemed strained and a little hollow by comparison. If ole’ Pink Hair can’t find a way to either boost her confidence or differentiate herself/her vocals from Kelly, she isn’t likely to last in the competition till July.
John Glosson (with Jennifer Nettles): “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” | I agreed with Jennifer that John should’ve ended Week 1 atop the leaderboard, but he definitely suffered from a sophomore slump in Week 2. Part of it was song choice: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is peppy R&B, and John comes across as more of a country crooner. That incongrousness became more pronounced thanks to an arrangement that found both singers cranked up to 11 right from the start, and — as Robin and Kelly pointed out — some dance moves from John that seemed unnatural and a little bit cheesy. I momentarily thought my cable box had switched to a telecast of a county fair talent contest on my local cable access channel, but nope this slice of frantic amateurishness was 100 percent Big 4 network ridiculata.
Olivia Chisholm (with Robin Thicke) “Where Is the Love” | I suspect it did not help Olivia’s confidence to take the stage moments after an intro package that showed her repeatedly forgetting her lyrics, getting dressed down by her mentor, and being told she needed to strut the stage like a world-class diva. As a result, her performance was as creaky and limp as an old mattress dragged out to the curb on a rainy recycling night. I kept trying to figure out if Olivia had been saddled with a tricky harmony line or if she was simply off pitch, before eventually settling on Option B. Still, that final high note was a thing of perfect beauty — and showcased the kind of ethereal tone you don’t often hear on a reality singing competition. I say it’s too early to count out this human embodiment of a Bratz Doll.
Meleana Brown (with John Legend): “Endless Love” | I know Johnny Gray ended Week 1 at No. 2 on the leaderboard, but methinks John Legend got himself an upgrade by adding Meleana to his team. This Hawaiian beauty has a very peculiar tone — think Mariah Carey with an adenoid problem — but I mean that in the best possible way. Meleana’s rendition of “Endless Love” had all the power and precision you’d expect from a Big Diva Balladeer, but an interesting character as well. There was no explanation of whether Meleana will have to inherit Johnny’s Week 1 scores, or if she’s just going to have one less score to average into her three-week total, but I guess it fits in with the let’s-not-worry-about-the-pesky-details nature of the whole production.
Jason Farol (with Kelly Clarkson): “Whenever You Call” | Oh how Jason probably wishes Kelly hadn’t pointed out in rehearsals that he’s got a penchant for rocking back and forth when he’s nervous. Cut to half of America, midway through Jason’s performance, unable to focus on anything but the gawky hunk shuffling side to side, like a first grader who’s struggling not to make wee-wee while finishing a desperate presentation of what he did on his summer vacation. Robin was right, though, that Jason’s voice and body language really exploded on the bridge, when he stepped away from his mentor (or as John Legend put it, temporarily cut the umbilical cord). Putting it another way, Jason’s harmonies were really quite sweet, but ultimately passive. He’s got to start performing as if he’s in a competition, not belting into a hairbrush in front of his bathroom mirror, if he doesn’t want to be relegated to Kelly’s handsome shadow of a background vocalist.
J Rome (with Jennifer Nettles): “You’re the One That I Want” | The minute I heard Jennifer’s song choice for J Rome, I assumed she was attempting to sabotage her front-runner in favor of her pet contestant John. But nope, the Sugarland star was just cooking up something so crazy, it actually turned out to be genius. Because while the Grease duet is a slice of pure, plastic-wrapped Velveeta, in Jennifer and J. Rome’s hands, it got placed between two pieces of Wonder Bread, slathered in butter, and grilled to crowd-pleasing perfection. J. Rome winkingly embraced the hokum right down to his borderline comical hip swivel and side-stepping choreography, without ever acting as though he was above it. That’s a tough tightrope to walk, but it helps that the dude really has a magnetic stage presence and doesn’t really ever miss a note, either. (Plus, the half-dozen backup dancers enhanced the “just have fun” mood.) And while the judges were right that “You’re the One That I Want” isn’t a particularly challenging vocal exercise, sometimes it’s nice to have a break from bombast and glory notes, no?
Alexis Foster (with Robin Thicke): “You’re All I Need to Get By” | Note to Robin Thicke: When your contestant tells you she doesn’t feel like she has any stage presence to back up her muscular instrument, try not to put her in a deadly pair of heels, flowy belted shirt, and no frakkin’ skirt! That’s definitely not the look for a shy chick trying to hobble out from behind the piano and catch a groove. Nevertheless, if you looked away from Alexis’ expression of frozen panic — Frozen Panic would be a good name for a punk band, no? Or maybe a line of extreme TV dinners? — and just listened, her vocal was fantastic. I loved the boom and bombast she showed on the line “together we can open any door” and the riffs she threw in toward the end of the number. (Robin, to his credit, sounded incredible, too.) She…she’s all I neeeeeeed…to tune in for Episode 3.
Anyhow, with that said, here’s how the leaderboard looked for Week 2, followed by my own personal ranking for the night:
What did you think of Week 2 of Duets? Who were your favorites? And do you feel better now that we know there’ll be a public vote starting in Week 6? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!