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Tweaks, Retooling, And When To Give Up: A Tale Of Two Singing Shows

Adam Levine, Shakira, Usher, and Blake Shelton make up the adjusted judging panel on NBC's <em>The Voice</em>.
Adam Taylor
Adam Levine, Shakira, Usher, and Blake Shelton make up the adjusted judging panel on NBC's The Voice.

As The Voice returns to NBC this week for its fourth season, viewers are seeing two new, if quite familiar, faces as Shakira and Usher occupy the coaches' seats vacated by Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green. Its talent-show rival over on Fox, The X Factor, will also see two new judges when (if? no, "when," surely) it comes back in the fall.

So why does The Voice seem so healthy and The X Factor so wobbly?

For one thing, The Voice is coming from a place of cautious confidence, riding high enough that replacing (temporarily or otherwise) half of its onscreen personalities doesn't run the substantial risk of killing its momentum. But The X Factor's game of musical chairs ( Did you catch what I did just there?) reeks of desperation because the show has no momentum at all. It's not being tweaked; it's being retooled.

The biggest difference, of course, is that The Voice is successful, and messing around with a successful show looks nothing like messing around with a struggling one. The changes come after three seasons that were not only well-watched but also well-liked. The arrival of Shakira and Usher doesn't have the whiff of a desperate attempt to find something that will work. If anything, the next few weeks will actually be watched with a bit of nail-chewing (the "cautious" part, above) out of fear that what's been working suddenly won't.

In that respect, The Voice is following the path of American Idol, whose shifting cast of judges didn't set in until its eighth season, well after that show was a firmly established hit, with a firmly established audience and a firmly established cast and a firmly established format. Successful or not, the changes that started seeping in after Kara DioGuardi joined the panel were intended to keep the format fresh, not get the show on firm ground for the first time.

The X Factor, on the other hand, hasn't ever figured itself out, a problem for a show presumably prepping its third season. The last bit of news to surface was last month's announcement that cohost Khloe Kardashian Odom (yes, there are so many of them; she's "the Odom one") wasn't being asked to return. Of the six onscreen personalities actively employed on the show's second season, at least three of them won't return for the third. (Judges Britney Spears and L.A. Reid have also vamoosed; official confirmation has yet to arrive concerning the fates of cohost Mario Lopez and mentor/judge Demi Lovato.) Of the ten hosts and judges that The X Factor has seen, Simon Cowell remains the only one to make it from the season one to season three.

To be clear: in and of itself, Odom's firing (simple non-renewal of a contract or not, let's call it what it is) can hardly hurt the show. She was stiff and awkward, constantly outthought by her Teleprompter, inexplicably (if maternally) handsy with contestants of all ages and genders, prone to picking fights between the judges and the singers that she had no stake in whatsoever and limited in her interviewing skills to asking little more than variations of "How did that feel?"

But even if the show eventually trades up, The X Factor's continuing revolving door calls attention to the fact that it's a show that's not working. It wasn't working right from the start, as British pop star Cheryl Cole was replaced as judge before the series ever made it to air (though not before several audition episodes featuring her were filmed).

Even that kind of immediate rearranging isn't a sign of an unsalvageable product, of course. 30 Rock famously replaced Rachel Dratch with Jane Krakowski for the final version of the pilot, and NewsRadio went through multiple Joes (a.k.a. Ricks) and Catherines in the first few episodes before settling on Joe Rogan and Khandi Alexander, who locked right in to that cast's finely-tuned chemistry.

But The X Factor never found a sweet spot and has been scrabbling for a personality and a purpose since day one. Efforts to recapture old dynamics – like the love/exasperation friction Cowell and fellow first-season judge Paula Abdul shared on American Idol – never materialized. Grand, tabloid-bait-y coups like snaring Spears to judge (and Odom to cohost) fell flat. Attempts to make former Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger happen only converted a failed pop star into a failed reality star. And so it seems to go with the upcoming third season for a show that, constant casting changes notwithstanding, has yet to distinguish itself amidst the glut of singing competitions, save for it being the loudest and most garish entry. That's hardly an identity on which to build a brand.

In fact, it's not The Voice with which The X Factor has the most in common but a more unlikely kindred spirit: the Will Arnett/Christina Applegate/Maya Rudolph vehicle Up All Night. Since its debut a mere year and a half ago, the NBC new-parents sitcom struggled to decide on a focus. Was it about the baby? The talk show that Rudolph headlines and Applegate produces? The contracting business that Arnett is starting? Who were the key secondary characters? Was it harried assistant Missy? Overly cheerful fellow parents Gene and Terry? Applegate's schlumpy, underdefined brother Scott, whose name I had to look up? Rudolph's bitter-manic frenemy Walter?

These unanswered questions resulted in a show that was substantially retooled twice, reversing its original concept — a stay-at-home dad and a working mother — at the start of the second season and going on hiatus this winter to transform from a laugh track-free, one-camera show to a multi-camera comedy filmed in front of an audience.

And now that last incarnation in fact looks like it won't happen, as star Christina Applegate and show creator Emily Spivey both left the show in ways directly connected to Up All Night's ever-changing direction. (An excellent, quietly scathing chronicle of the show's collapse, complete with a description of the utterly bazoo baby-portal/multiple-levels-of-reality pitch that was not pursued, can be read here.) And while it still hasn't been officially axed, everyone else seems to see the writing on the wall and is prepared to admit defeat.

Plenty of shows have been kept on the air well past their natural sell-by dates. Television is a money-making business, after all. But before that, it's also a money-spending business, and there comes a point when a show has to cut its losses and walk away. Up All Night reached that point months ago, and The X Factor may be there now, as it lurches forward, hoping beyond hope to find something, anything that sticks, despite the fact that nothing has yet. Half-new panel or no half-new panel, The Voice has quite a way to go before it ever reaches that point.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Hirsh lives in the Boston area, where he indulges in the magic trinity of improv comedy, competitive adult four square and music journalism. He has won trophies for one of these, but refuses to say which.