Simon Cowell’s ‘Celebrity Duets’ Slays You Slowly

As Michael Bolton oozed across the floor, grunting out his song with tortured facial expressions and criminal over-emoting, my interest in Celebrity Duets began to go south faster than a carpetbagger on roller skates.

Celebrity Duets
Simon Cowell
29 August 2006 (US)

No, it’s not a train wreck. Train wrecks are serious matters where people’s lives are changed. Celebrity Duets, Simon Cowell’s latest attempt to create a “reality” game show franchise, is about unserious as one can imagine, and no one’s life will be affected by it.

Even as TV, it could be worse. It could be Pink Lady and Jeff or The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Wayne Brady hosts, and Marie Osmond, Little Richard, and David Foster are the judges. And the premise is intriguing: C- and D-list celebrities (Kathy Griffin in the audience? Check!) try to jumpstart their careers by singing alongside famous vocalists of the last five decades. If they’re good, they’re good and if they’re bad, they might be funny-bad. It seemed a win-win situation.

For a little while, the first episode was okay. Lucy Lawless stepped up, looking fit and surprisingly blond, and took on the first few lines of “Time, Love, and Tenderness” by herself. That’s the gimmick: at first, we don’t know the identity of each contestant’s duet partner. Lawless sounded fine, maybe a little wobbly-nervous, but decent. Then, sadly, she yelled out a phrase that will live in infamy, a phrase that not only announced her duet partner, but also the show’s shark-jumping moment: “Mr. Michael Bolton!”

As this august gentleman oozed across the floor, grunting out his own hit song with tortured facial expressions and criminal over-emoting, my interest began to go south faster than a carpetbagger on roller skates. Lawless was game, no retching or anything, but it seemed clear that she was realizing, “My entire future career in the U.S. hinges on this clown and he. Just. Doesn’t. Sound. Good.” When Osmond scolded her for not really “relating” to Bolton during their duet, it was a fair accusation. But come on, people, do you blame her? (Osmond’s comments, lukewarm at best, did make internal sense. Little Richard sounded kind of like a perv, even though he was comparing Lawless to Ma Rainey. No, I’m not kidding.)

Other contestants in the “pretty good singer” category: well, just Alfonso Ribeiro. We all knew he could sing since he played the glee-club-loving Carlton in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. But it’s still hilarious hearing him sing “Ya Mo Be There” with James Ingram, because it’s “Ya Mo Be There,” the best-titled song in pop music history, but he’s fairly credible as a vocalist.

The in-between zone offers more selection, like actor/talk show host/VH1 panelist Hal Sparks and Lea Thompson. Actually, Thompson isn’t really a good singer at all, but she’s got all the right moves so America might be fooled for a while. The standout star is Jai Rodriguez, a.k.a., “the one who knows about art and music and stuff” on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He is a wonderful singer, holding his own with both Gladys Knight (still superhumanly awesome) and Michelle Williams, who is too thin from her efforts to remind people that she’s the other one in Destiny’s Child. Rodriguez is a top singer by anyone’s standards. He’s the inevitable winner here.

And that’s the most annoying thing about the show. Rodriguez’s only competition is Ribeiro, and he is no competition at all. Unless one of the others makes a run halfway through the short “season” of this program, this will be the least tense reality competition show of all time.

Because everyone else sucks. Gymnast Carly Patterson was exposed quite badly in both her singing numbers. Professional wrestler Chris Jericho already has a band (Fozzy) and a CD, but he was clueless, and was the first one eliminated by the judges. (After the first episode, the viewers’ votes decide who stays and who goes.)

There is a chance that the performers could all loosen up, that Wayne Brady might come unglued and let loose harsh one-liners, or that Little Richard’s ravings might become more crazy-biscuits, or that Marie Osmond will stop trying so hard to be interesting. Also, it would be great if they could solve their classic rock über alles song choice problem.

Though Celebrity Duets fails on virtually every level, it will attract viewers for its short run. Thisis because Jai Rodriguez is adorable, and because Americans love to cast their votes for candidates who don’t matter. That’s the world we live in, y’all, and there’s no point complaining about it.

RATING 4 / 10
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