Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm
With American Idol withering away to obsolescence in its twilight years; The X Factor failing to take hold in the States; and The Voice plateauing into background noise, the moment is ripe for a new singing competition show to ascend to the top (or bottom) of the heap. Something brave and brash and incisive, a new popcultural watershed and bellwether. A show that says as much about what we’d like to become as what we’ve actually become. A show that addresses directly what we (de)value most as a society; that addresses the concerns of what it’s like to be alive right now, in 2013, in America; and, mostly importantly, a show that addresses and answers the singular vital question of how much humiliation and torture an individual is willing to endure for a chance at winning, at most, ten grand.
Killer Karaoke is that show, the show that we may not have ever asked for, but is exactly what we deserve, the just, Biblical punishment for a decade plus of trainwreck singers, oversized egoistic judges, and the Bataan death march slog of each interminable season of Idol, et al. Based on a similar British show – Sing if You Can – and imported and rejiggered for American audiences, it presents (initially) as a straight up singing competition that’s become familiar to the point of tedium; but then the grand gimmick is revealed, and the show morphs into a mix of reality competition, Japanese game show (it even introduces each song/ordeal with Japanese lettering and a vaguely racist obviously fake Japanese announcer) and the Gong Show, crossed with the spirit of Jackass (it’s no accident that the show is hosted by notorious Jackass alumn Steve-O).
Killer Karaoke‘s premise and central conceit is summed up in its concise and ominous catchphrase: “Whatever you do…DO NOT. STOP. SINGING” (as if it’s speaking directly, with sardonic positivity, to the bazillions of hopefuls who turn out to the cattle call auditions of all the various other singing shows, even though they are more likely to be struck by a meteor while also being struck by lightning and winning the lottery, all at the same time, than win one of these shows). It’s a seemingly positive message: that no matter what happens – on this show, in life – never lose your heart or desire to sing and find the redemptive power of belting a truly heartfelt song out at the top of your lungs.
Except (here’s the rub) that you are supposed to “not stop singing” while you are being dunked into a tank full of ice water and giant snakes and baby alligators. Or being repeatedly buzzed by a strong electrical current from a dozen or so shock collars. Or having the hair ripped off your chest and armpits by hot wax. Or (my own favorite) being repeatedly mauled by attack dogs (while wearing protective gear, of course).
I don’t know what show the contestants think they are signing up for when they audition for something with “Killer” in the title… but they all seem, to a man or woman, genuinely shocked when they find out whatever ordeal is in store for them as they do their best to warble out “Take on Me” or “Ramblin’ Man” or “You Dropped a Bomb on Me”. Maybe the show’s own cattle call was advertised under a different name – or maybe our collective mania to be on TV and to sing is so overpowering that the implications of the show’s name don’t sink in, or are blithely brushed aside.
But the reality of their dire predicament dawns pretty quickly on the singers – you can see it in the immediate widening of their eyes and dropping of their jaw, as their doom looms in—and you can, of course, most significantly hear it in the various yelps, screams and pitchy screeches in their voice as they try to wrangle both with the song and whatever mild torture it has been their misfortune to draw. It’s definitely amusing, and it’s hard not to laugh along with the clownishly cheery Steve-O and the whooping crowd, despite the deep sadness and desperation that courses underneath the show.
It’s hard to get a steady read on Killer Karaoke – it seems to be on the level (there’s no faking the look of terror on these people’s faces), but then again, the level of outrageousness is so high that it also seems to be entirely a put on at times, a blatant send up of all the other singing competitions, throwing their own desperation and torturous path to fame into stark relief. It’s the rare show which gets to have its cake and eat it too – it works both as the genre it ostensibly is, and a blanket commentary on that entire genre, and even lashes straight out at the audience too, calling into question our own moral culpability in yucking it up with a singing geek show based on torture.
Or, well, maybe I’m just overanalyzing this, and not giving myself fully over to the shows stupid charms (and it is very stupid). And I wonder about its longevity, and if anyone will even remember it a few months ago. In small doses it works, and is wildly entertaining, maybe the funniest show on TV. The problem is if you’ve seen one episode, you’ve pretty much seen them all. There’s a dearth of inventiveness so far in the various…”stunts” that maybe indicates a short shelf-life, unless the producers can keep upping the ante and thinking of new horrors to inflict on their victims.
I’ve seen all the episodes so far, and each hour seems to cycle through the same basic group of gags over and over, to usually diminishing returns with each repetition. Sometimes there’s something truly out of left field (like the girl who was routinely pummeled by sweaty smelly guys the size of sumo-wrestlers – not exactly painful or horrifying, but probably extremely unpleasant) but mostly it seems to be the same five or six stunts, done over and over. My guess is that this first batch of shows was taped on the same day, or close together, and the soundstage couldn’t be repurposed for a great variety of gags. I hope this is the case, and that when Killer Karaoke reups, they reup the invention and ridiculousness and outrageousness.
For now, though, it works great if you are just blithely cruising by it on your way down to something else in whatever lower depths of the dial TruTV resides in, or are led there (as I was) by seeing it featured on The Soup (anything that Joel McHale is a big fan of is a good enough recommendation for me). But to truly rise to the top, Killer Karaoke will have to continuously raise the stakes, and it might lead them down a path which will venture into something immoral and perhaps, even, murderous, and finally live up to its title, and prove to be the end point of all TV forever. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.