Craig Sjodin/ABC
May 25, 2012 at 04:14 AM EDT

Whew! So here we go. American Idol winner Phillip Phillips has barely had time to settle into one of his trademark 10-hour naps, but there’s no time to waste. ABC just had to sneak in there this week with “an epic night of music” — the series premiere of Duets! Kelly Clarkson’s charm, Jennifer Nettles’ enthusiasm, John Legend’s smoothness, and Robin Thicke’s ridiculous yet captivating pompadour are all in it to win it. Will you let them entertain you?

The show is set on your typical Musical Competition Reality Series Laser Light Stage, located on the threshold between hell and outer space. Unlike The Voice, on Duets the judges/mentors actually sing WITH the contestants (duh). Plus, instead of perching their priceless bodies on tightly packed swivel-thrones that allow for heated interaction like on The Voice, the Duets mentors sit really far away from each other in what host Quddus calls “the superstar lounge” — each star ensconced safely in a futuristic bowling alley-esque seating pod that can accommodate their team members (two per star) and then some. It’s a bit desolate with a major “What exactly are we doing here?” vibe. But hey, it’s only the premiere.

We didn’t get to see much of the audition process — the mentors contacted potential singers after reviewing hundreds of submission tapes. What I could gather from the premiere is that this show is primarily about the four superstars and their music and only tangentially about the unknowns they bring onstage. Aside from a few magical moments, it felt a little flat. Maybe I’m just exhausted from the spring TV season. Momentum could definitely grow as we get to know the contestants and start giving a crap about their fates. Right now, I’m not feeling much of a competitive vibe. There’s a recording contract at stake, but for the most part the shell-shocked contestants seem thrilled enough just to be onstage with their heroes. That’s cute, but I don’t know if it’ll be compelling week to week.

The scoring system is quite the janky disaster! They might want to tweak that. Here’s how the eight contestants ranked after the judges entered their “Secret votes from 1 to 100” into their “Duets tablets.” Seriously.

1. J Rome, who sang “Tonight” with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles as a silver-sequined baseball cap (?) fluttered against one of his back jean pockets. (It complemented the woven-rope shoulder patch on his blazer nicely.) I thought they had good chemistry — neither threatened to steal the show and they mostly stayed planted while engaging in a slightly robotic series of sways. It looked much more natural than I’m making it sound. Robin Thicke noted that J Rome was “handsome with an amazing voice, so I don’t like you already.” John Legend said “I don’t know what to say that has not been said,” which was bizarre because only Kelly and Robin had spoken and they really hadn’t said much of anything! I’m not sure the judges/mentors even know what kind of feedback they’re expected to offer. “You really look and sound like a star,” Legend continued. Sure, that works.

NEXT: John Legend mingles with ordinary people

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Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, and Robin Thicke sing with unknowns
112 minutes
Complete Coverage

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