Dueling musicians, confusing rules, and a controversial ex-'American Idol' contestant dominate the debut of the new singing competition

By Hillary Busis
Updated April 14, 2015 at 11:35 PM EDT
Chris Haston/NBC

The Voice taught all of us a valuable lesson tonight: Don’t judge a show by its relentless ad campaign. For weeks, NBC has been irritating dozens and dozens of viewers (and at least one famous person) by running obnoxious, screen-obscuring spots for its new singing competition underneath its regularly scheduled programming. But if anyone didn’t tune in to the first episode of The Voice because they were sick to death of those ads, they missed a fun new series that may just have breathed some life into the overly-saturated singing show genre.

It hasn’t, however, completely reinvented the wheel. At the top of The Voice‘s two-hour premiere, host Carson Daly declared the series to be “a singing competition unlike any other, because it puts vocal ability first.” Eh… not really. Here’s a breakdown of how this excessively complicated show works:

1. The Voice features four celebrity coaches — Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton, and Adam Levine, in case their images haven’t been burned into your brainstem yet –who must each draft eight singers to form a team. They choose the members of their teams in Round One, the “blind auditions.”

2. In this opening round, each judge is placed in a giant, Dr. Claw-esque chair that faces away from a stage. One by one, wannabes come out and try to wow the coaches with their voices alone. These auditioners have all been vetted already by The Voice‘s producers, so none of them are untalented losers being trotted out solely for our sick amusement — ahem, Idol.

3. If a coach likes what he hears, he presses a magic button that turns his chair around; if he’s the only judge that turns by the time the wannabe stops singing, that vocalist is automatically on his team.

4. But — and this is where it gets fun — if more than one coach presses his button, the vocalist who’s being fought over gets to choose which coach he or she wants to work with.

5. Once each coach has chosen eight singers, he or she personally trains the members of that team to make them better vocalists. I imagine that this stage will include at least one montage set on an obstacle course.

6. Then comes Round Two, in which each coach is responsible for cutting half the members of his or her team. Here, teammates will compete against each other inside of what appears to be a giant Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots ring. At this point, the coaches will be permitted to watch the contestants as they perform, so that whole “putting vocal ability first” thing kind of goes out the window.

7. Finally, in its last round, The Voice will start to look a lot more familiar. The 16 remaining singers will perform live. Viewers will vote for their favorites, eventually selecting one grand prize winner.

8. The victor receives $100,000 and a record deal with Universal Republic.

Did that clarify things? I’m going to pretend I just heard you say ‘yes.’ Let’s move on.

NEXT: God, I hope I get it!

After a rousing group performance of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — Cee Lo still really kills “Ha ha ha, bless your soul,” doesn’t he? — the coaches got into their chairs and down to business. The first hopeful to enter the Voice Box was 31-year-old Tarralyn Ramsey, a Floridian who likes matching her neon eyeshadow to her bright, Pucci-print dresses. (She also refered to Carson Daly as “Mr. Carson,” which has forever endeared her to me.) Her rendition of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” started out shaky but eventually got powerful enough to persuade both Christina and Cee Lo to hit their big red buttons. From the moment this diva-in-training opened her mouth, though, it was clear whose team she’d end up on; Tarralyn and Xtina are going to be very happy together.

Next up was countrified twanger Patrick Thomas. It may be tough to believe, but back in high school, Patrick was a huge nerd. (Because nerds never don cowboy apparel.) He wore a ten gallon hat, sang Tim McGraw, and surprised nobody by choosing to become the first member of Blake Shelton’s team. Patrick was followed by tattooed dad Jared, a rocker whose rendition of Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad” didn’t move any of the coaches to turn around. Hopefully his equally rockin’ wife — who wore a black and white dress with matching arm warmers to the auditions — managed to soothe Jared’s wounded ego after his rejection.

Vicci Martinez of Tacoma, Washington had better luck. Her passionate performance of “Rolling in the Deep” piqued the interest of both Cee Lo and Christina. Though Vicci praised Xtina as the “goddess of all goddesses” — great, because just what that lady needs is an ego boost — she ultimately chose Cee Lo. The man behind “Forget You” might have gotten two teammates in a row if he had only pressed his button while pretty first-generation American Sonia Rao sang “If I Ain’t Got You;” alas, since the coaches could hear Sonia’s decent voice but not see her gorgeous face, she ended up not making it through. These are the perils of trying not to be shallow, America.

Oh, apparently, duos are also allowed to compete on this show. After Sonia’s rejection, folksy married couple Josh and Nicole performed a lovely version of the Oscar-winning tune “Falling Slowly,” totally freaking Blake and Adam out in the process; apparently, nobody told them that auditioners didn’t have to be solo singers. The couple found Blake’s blatant mugging more charming than Cee Lo’s promise to turn them into the next Sonny and Cher, so they joined the country singer’s team as a single artist. Doesn’t that kind of give Blake an unfair advantage?

NEXT: The triumphant return of Frenchie Davis

The Voice‘s next contestant looked familiar… like your ex-girlfriend. Say hello again to Frenchie Davis, the brassy, soulful diva who made it to the semi-finals of American Idol‘s second season before being kicked off the show for “a decision I made when I was 19 years old.” (Like most bad choices made at age 19, the decision involved naked pictures.) Though Frenchie went on to join the cast of Rent on Broadway, apparently, the siren song of reality TV was too seductive for her to ignore. She brought the house down with Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” of all things, and ended up on Christina’s team. Methinks they’re going to find a room with a few extra layers of soundproofing when Christina’s team gets together to practice.

Kelsey Rey is a pretty girl who’s, like, so tired of people judging her based on her looks. Oh, cry me a river, brown-haired Barbie. She joined Cee Lo’s team and promptly faded from memory as soon as baby-faced Jeff Jenkins took the stage. His deep, rich vocals prompted every single coach — or, in Carson’s totally un-hyperbolic words, “four of the biggest artists on the planet Earth” — to turn around for the first time all night. Christina tried to win him over with quasi-jargon — “You were mastering the distinctive notes within each particular ad lib and run and riff” — while Cee Lo went for the gut, telling Jeff that his voice “let me know my heart is working.” In the end, though, Jeff chose Adam, making him the first member of the snarky Maroon 5 frontman’s team.

After Jeff came a group of quirky auditioners: homeless Nirvana fan Rebecca, Jersey mom Joanne, and shy high school student Xenia. The former and the latter get snatched up by Adam and Blake, respectively; Joanne, unfortunately, aurally telegraphed her middle agedness by singing “I Say a Little Prayer” and didn’t get picked by anyone. Of the three, Xenia probably has the most interesting voice — it’s a lot more quiet than, say, Frenchie’s or Tarralyn’s, but it’s also got a more unique texture. She’s sort of like Ingrid Michaelson, or maybe nothing at all like her. Help me with this analogy, Voice viewers!

The only real fake-out of the night came when Tje Austin auditioned after Xenia. In a voiceover we learned, without seeing his face, that he’s a sci-fi geek who was raised by white, Mormon parents. But as it turns out, raspy-voiced Tje (pronounced “tie”) is a gangly African American dude with an enormous ‘fro. Twist! Both Adam and Cee Lo — who had a habit of pressing their buttons at the exact same time, to the point where it gets kind of creepy by the end of the episode — want Tje, but the singer decides he’s cuckoo for Cee Lo.

NEXT: The episode ends, but the competition’s just beginning

The second (and last) singer to get every coach to turn was smooth-voiced Javier Colon, who performed an acoustic cover of “Time After Time” that I might have liked more if he had stuck more closely to the melody. Then again, I suppose he was trying to impress Christina Aguilera. Adam tried the hard sell, telling Javier that he chose him because he “wants to win this f—er.” Though Xtina dismissed her rival’s methods of persuasion, they worked on Javier; he became Adam’s third team member.

Beverly McClellan, the night’s final singer, is a middle-aged broad who’s clearly been around the block a few times. (That’s where you go to get yellow ear plugs and chin piercings.) Her Janis-channeling rendition of “Piece of My Heart” was stirring, though I’ll never be able to hear that song without thinking of Jackie Jormp-Jomp and giggling quietly to myself. Her enthusiasm ignited another bidding war between Adam and Christina, who again took aim at her fellow coach: “He’s a little bit of a wheeler, dealer, schmealer,” she explained to Beverly, adding that Adam “will sell you a used car to your grandma.” No wonder Jackie — er, Beverly — ended up going with Xtina over Levine.

And there was our show. Christina’s team, so far, consists of three female vocal powerhouses; Cee Lo’s got a weird mixture of the mainstream and the quirky, as does Adam; and Blake’s assembled a group of three folksy folk. Next week, each coach will add five more singers (or duos?) to his or her own team — and then the competition will begin in earnest. If the second episode of The Voice is as entertaining as the first was, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be hooked in no time.

What did you think of The Voice: Episode One? Would you characterize it as a good addition to the singing competition genre, or a needlessly complicated Idol clone — or something in between? Which judge will you be rooting for as the show progresses? And have you picked out any favorites yet, or are you waiting to see the rest of the auditions first?

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