Add two new judges, six new sob stories, shake well. Serve while spinning...

By Adam Carlson
Updated April 14, 2015 at 10:39 PM EDT
Credit: NBC
S4 E1
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NBC is collapsing: Jay Leno is having dinner with snakes; Matt Lauer is despised by large segments of the part of America that is awake at 7 a.m., and no one even cares anymore that Ryan Murphy really wants NeNe Leakes to be famous.

And then, from between her two wizard sleeves, came Shakira and a trio of other “industry giants.” The Voice is back, y’all — and the blind auditions start right now.

Welcome back to another season of song. Melissa Maerz, my colleague-in-song, joins next week for the rest of the season. What will our judging relationship be like? Which of us will be the “Adam”? Which of us will be the “Usher”? Anyhow, if your winter hiatus has been lacking in rotating chairs and/or Carson Daly, you’ll be happy to hear that both are still fully operational. And if you had nightmares about the ghost hands who herald the beginning of each week’s episode, then you’re out of luck.

With the start of the season, NBC took the chance to catch us all up on what The Voice is and who The Voice has been hanging out with since we last saw it and what new recipes The Voice is maybe going to try to cook for dinner this week. A recap: Blake Shelton and Adam Levine are both “champion coaches” (the word “coaches” heretofore interchangeable with judges because come on). And new additions Usher and Shakira have “over” 17 Grammys between them.

One of Blake’s favorite parts of the show? The click of a high heel.

One of Shakira’s favorite parts of the show? “There’s no prejudice. You’re just focused on the voice.” What? She’s right. (Haters to the left.)

There’s some snapshot footage of the contestants-to-come and some idle musings about the beneficent power of the show, including how great it is that the coaches are coaches first and judges maybe not at all. But why focus on any of them when Carson is teasing “one of the biggest surprises in Voice history”?

But first: the judges come together to play The Beatles’ “Come Together,” with the three men on instruments (Adam on drums, Blake and Usher on guitars) and Shakira quashing any irony with her sexy chortle.

Finally, Carson reminds us why we’re all here in the first place: “The blind auditions start right now.”

NEXT: Seeing double

Our first contestant of the hour, and the season, is actually a contestant(s): the self-styled “Morgan twins,” who had names a long time ago before giving them up to address everyone using the royal “we,” as in: “We feel like we can bring something special to the show,” and, “Harmonizing is our thing.”

Okay, so as a twin, I’m sort of repulsed by their twin-ness. As a person, I’m sort of confused as to how it is they’ll be able to perform together: Will the judges judge them for their combined strengths and weaknesses? The dirty little secret is actually a dirty little secret(s), because yes, the “Morgan twins” (I’m never dropping the quotes) are allowed to perform together, “Fallin’” that is, but in so doing reveal their one flaw: that one of the sisters is the better singer — and that, just maybe, one of them isn’t that good at all. Did my ears deceive me? Because as a twin (that’s so a thing now; they started it) I detected some definite vocal fishiness, including the fact that one of the Morgans was mighty reedy. No matter, the judges ate her up, leaving the ultimate decisions to the twins, who revealed their choice in a cutesy-horrific patois:

“The coach—”

“We’re going—”

“To pick—”

“Is Blake”

This is shocking for two reasons: One, because the girls had earlier gushed about loving Usher, though he made no great play for their vote at the end; and two, because because the Morgans are, like, two separate people who should have to compete separately. Apparently this is the first time anyone on The Voice has ever seen twins (no really), so a little shock is understandable. But as a twin, I can vouch for our lack of necessary symbiosis, hand-holding notwithstanding. Also they so switched teams and went with Blake.

Next up is 21-year-old hairdresser Jess Kellner, who had an alcoholic mom growing up and now wants to be able to express herself through song. This she does through “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” complete with pizzazz (compliments of that supersize piece of hand jewelry on her mic hand). Kellner’s got a pretty voice but little ability to shape it. She sings through, around, and on top of the melody. Shakira is “haunted” but whatever, because Usher, sprawled out all akimbo like he was born in the coaches chair, smiles real slow and says, “Come rock with me” and if you haven’t figured out who she chose by the end of this sentence then the answer is Usher.

NEXT: “While our coaches plot…”

The Voice does a few things very well, including being markedly different from the American Idol-size shadow in which it grew up. The Voice also insists on portraying its judging panel as a conga line of sin, with time spared to show Usher and Shakira (and then Blake, because obviously) in some beglammered back room “plotting against Adam.” Is it a joke? Isn’t it a random one, if so? Who was the next contestant again?

That’d be Mark Andrew, a Minnesotan roofer who was in a band until his band was struck with tragedy, including the death of his drummer at the hands of a drunk driver. It’s sad that his blazer is ill-fitting, but nice that he’s a good singer, especially because the show makes us watch him cry on camera. (Just wait.) He auditions with “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and a crinkly smile. Or as Shakira said: “I’m so passionate about you.” She then gestures outward from her chest. Darn coincidences! Mark votes Team Shakira.

The night’s fourth contestant is Janetza Miranda, who brings along an energetic Puerto Rican family, the wrong shade of lipstick, and the ability to make a screeching bird call on command. (No part of that sentence was a lie.) She performs Sia’s “Titanium,” kicking off the night’s trend of not-bad voices making bad-bad song choices. The judges all agree: You’ve got groove, Janetza. But no coaches turn around. Try again next year?

Sensing a precipitous drop in sunniness, panel leader Adam — yeah, I said it — hops up to the stage to give Janetza some kind words and a hug. “It’s gonna be okay.” And it is, I’m sure of it. You got hugged by a celebrity, Janetza! That qualifies you for sainthood in at least three different cults.

Now comes the time in the episode where we all have to forget that I just mentioned how different The Voice can be from other, more Idol-y singing competitions, because here comes the sound of a teenage phenom by the name of Danielle Bradbery, and didn’t you hear? She wears cowboy boots and was once so scared that she had to sing under a table. I know this because her family loves that story so much they tell it to millions of people on national television.

Other things the littlest Bradbery loves: Taylor Swift (probably), because she busts out a cover of La Swift’s “Mean” for the blind audition. Bradbery’s got a powerful voice, strong and even like mid-career Faith Hill, but she makes the fatal mistake of singing Swift’s song like a ballad instead of a kiss-off. The foursome loves it regardless, except Shakira, who loves it but also feels “so stupid” for not turning her chair around. Why didn’t she turn her chair? Shakira does what she wants. She wears wizard sleeves. Keep up.

Usher tries to woo Bradbery to his team with the promise of the promise of Justin Bieber. Blake, meanwhile, tells her that country music would love a powerhouse teenage girl to add to its lineup. Usher counters: I can offer the world! Nashville is just a state. There’s some manufactured dithering and a commercial break over her decision but Nashville, of course, not being a state, Bradbery goes with Blake.

NEXT: The sobbiest sobber

The Voice loves a good sob story, it does. And to its credit, the conceit of the blind auditions does grant the show a have-our-cry-and-eat-it-too power of packaging a contestant’s sob story into his or her performance while also unshackling the judges from having to know anything about it while making their decisions.

But still: I can’t be the only one who tensed up, and then pulled away, at the blunt force presentation of one 19-year-old Vedo, an R&B singer from Atlanta who was homeless for a few years with his mom before recently discovering that she was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer and then returning home to care for her only to learn that The Voice wanted him to audition before waving the opportunity away in the face of family only to be urged to reconsider by his own dying mother. The cameras film everything. Later, Vedo breaks down before his performance and okay, that’s enough, moving on.

He does a rhythmic twist on Bieber’s “Boyfriend” — all of the swagger, none of the staccato — that has Usher quickly spinning, which is doubly good news for Vedo and his mother, who is watching backstage. Deep breaths, you guys. It gets easier.

Opposite of Vedo is Christian Porter, who is very tall and very pale and brings with him a guitar to the stage. True story: His mom thought he was deaf as a child. Truer story: the producers are bold enough to cue up the “we’re sad” music when Porter describes his hard time living as a bar musician, often playing up to three hours at a time.

For the night, he’s prepared an adventurous version of “Sexy and I Know It” which is, yes, adventurous but also, yes, very gimmicky and does nothing to show how Porter actually sings. Blake, Usher, and Shakira take the spin, but not Adam, who wisely says he “wasn’t even sure a human was up there.”

I’m almost certain that Porter will go with Usher, who lavishes him with a double reference to Magic Mike and to the hordes of “going crazy” women in the audience. But no! It’s Blake for the steal.

As it’s now late in the hour, we get a triple-shot of sad with a look at some of the eliminated contestants, including: Nicole Serrano singing “E.T.,” Names Shealy singing “Not Over You,” and Hunter Elizabeth singing “Mercy.” XOXO.

And then, to cut through the gloom, comes the preternaturally mature Leah Lewis, 15 and a former Chinese orphan turned well-adjusted child to a smiling older white couple. Leah loves country and the blues because of her father. Her father loves her. This is all very nice. And then the niceness screeches to a halt because guess what? Leah decides to sing Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” and Leah really, really does not have the voice for that. No coaches turn around, understandably, but they also praise Leah unduly for her potential instead of the truth: that she hamstrung herself with a song that swallowed her whole.

NEXT: Surprise! Surprise!

Growing up, Kris Thomas was only allowed to listen to gospel music, so it’s fun to learn that he would sneak some time with his older brother’s cassettes every now and again. It’s less funny to learn that, one day, Thomas was driving drunk when he fell asleep and nearly ran into a house. But hey — it’s singing time!

Thomas chooses “Saving All My Love For You,” and his nice-but-not-powerful voice earns him the gobsmacked surprise of the judges. “You’re a dude?” wonders Usher because — psych! — Usher’s eyes don’t actually work. Whatever: Shakira gets the drop on all of them by spinning first and laying claim to Thomas, who leaves the stage in a state of shock. “I feel like I’m in a dream,” he says. “I feel like that didn’t just happen.”

What does just happen is the elimination of the next contestant, James Irwin, who we first learn lost his twin daughters while his wife was still pregnant before he even sings a note. Then he sings “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved” and it’s nice, but because this is The Voice and The Voice is an intricately political competition (didn’t you know?), and the judges have their teams to think of, Irwin is greeted by no spinning chairs and no coaches.

Bizarrely, they all praise him anyway with phrases like “talented dude” and “really good job.” Mercifully, Irwin is freed before I can complete my pox on the “Morgan twins.”

Lastly, we jump into a car with Carson Daly and head to Pasadena to meet Judith Hill, who is working in the home recording studio of her musician parents. Dad played with Bob Dylan and Judith herself worked for two months on Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” tour before he died. Then she sang at his memorial service.

None of us have heard of her, though, because she thought answering all those calls that came in afterward would have been tacky. But no longer: “Now it’s finally time — this is the Judith Hill chapter.”

Spoiler: The Judith Hill chapter should really just be a CD, because she can sing. Like really. Like, oh-right-she-was-already-a-professional-singer really. A 90-second glimpse of her doing “What a Girl Wants” is enough to have Adam Levine standing on his plush red chair and threatening to claw off the faces of the other judges and set himself on fire if he doesn’t get her on his team. She doesn’t hesitate: Team Adam it is.

And that is that. Do you miss Christina and Cee Lo or not at all? (I’m Team Not At All.) When did Adam get so devilishly charismatic — is it the white T-shirt? And when did Blake get so old?

The first night of the blind auditions is over. Open your eyes!

Episode Recaps

The Voice

A rotating chair-full of judges search for the next great superstar singer on this NBC reality show.

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