Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, and Robin Thicke sing with unknowns, use tablets

By Annie Barrett
Updated May 25, 2012 at 04:14 AM EDT
Credit: Craig Sjodin/ABC
S1 E1
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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

2. Johnny Gray. Johnny and J Rome actually sang first and second, so my guess is that the judges gradually became more stingy with their secret scores as the show went on. “I definitely understand the human voice pretty well,” John Legend explained to us as he auditioned some hopefuls. So it worked out well that he ended up choosing Johnny Gray, a human. Their “Ordinary People” duet was very slow and a bit static, but came alive at the end when Johnny — a big linebacker who often cries — was allowed to do some runs. Legend almost hadn’t picked him because Johnny had a tendency to riff too much. “Right now I wanna recognize the melody. ‘Cause I wrote it,” he warned his protégé. “LET’S DUET.”

3. Alexis Foster attempted to make “Magic” with Robin Thicke. I was surprised she ranked so highly — she appeared to be questioning him and doubting herself at every moment, but that may have been due to her inability to wobble even 10 degrees in either direction while wearing those inhumane red spike heels. Poor girl! She could really kill it next week in some sensible shoes. Robin had hunted all across the nation (from the comfort of his private screening room) for a great gospel singer. I thought he might have gone instead with Jasmine, a fellow hairstyle pioneer who sported a long braid on one side of her starstruck face and an equally thick clump of non-braid on the other. Fascinating. I must try it.

4. John Glosson and Jennifer Nettles brought us to church and back with Sugarland’s “Stay” — the most dynamic performance of the night. They’re both from Douglas, Georgia, they both sing like beasts, and they both love to cry. He’ll have no problem engaging with the music as he considers singing the ultimate spiritual experience. “It seemed like there was nothing else going on in the room at all,” marveled Quddus. Typically that’s how tapings work.

5. Olivia Chisholm and Robin Thicke came onto each other rather effectively during “Lost Without You,” asking the other singer (and at times, the crowd) to “tell me how you love my body.” I’m a big fan of her subtle, sensual voice. Legend suggested she “get into it a bit more” but I hope she doesn’t go too over-the-top sexy for next week because it already looked like they were about to hump and I wouldn’t put it past Robin to just start doing it. Kelly Clarkson said she’d give her left leg to look like slinky sparklemonster Olivia. No, Kelly! Not the left one!

NEXT: Kelly Clarkson’s partners come in last 6. Bridget Carrington and John Legend‘s duet on “Tonight (Best You Ever Had) was by far my favorite number of the night — it was intimate without being showy-sexy and their voices blended well. I like how she leaned in gently over his piano at the start of the song, and then they worked the whole stage, alternating between inching up closely to each other and flirting with the lyrics and their eyes from opposite areas. Sorry to make this not necessarily about the singing, but these two looked amazing together. That blue dress! This was hot. “Anybody wanna go get it popping?” asked Robin. Ewwww, Robin.

7. Jordan Meredith and Kelly Clarkson sang Kelly’s hit single “Stronger” and we all know that if viewers had been voting, this would have won the top spot by a landslide. I actually disagreed with the judges that the two women’s voices were indistinguishable — Jordan was a little breathy and overall weaker. I mean, obviously, since she was singing with Kelly. I hope the pink-haired cutie gets over her nerves and general starstruck behavior. You’ve made it, girl! Listen to Robin Thicke, the poor man’s Steven Tyler of the Duets panel: “I like your smile, I like your hair, I like your voice. The whole stage is just bubbling with good times right now.”

8. Jason Farol. Here’s another one I thought might have scored higher with viewers than with the judges. They likely withheld their high marks because he really botched the last line of his “Breaking Your Own Heart” duet with Kelly Clarkson. I disagreed with Quddus that Jason’s nerves didn’t show. He looked terrified doing that awkward step-together, step-together shuffle and Kelly had to keep smiling encouragingly at him to elevate his performance value and confidence. “When you open up, it lights up the room,” Jennifer Nettles told Jason. That’s true!

What did you think of the premiere? Did you want to see more back story for the contestants? Will you tune in again next week? Are you just bubbling with good times right now? Discuss!

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From ABC: Send a #Duets Tweet to pledge your support for your favorite Superstar’s team for a chance to win a Duets Superfan Prize Pack or a trip for 2 to LA to see a live Duets show with VIP access to the Duets After Party with host Quddus! More info here.


Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, and Robin Thicke sing with unknowns
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