Fox’s new singing competition show The Four, which premiered its two-hour season opener on Thursday night, tries very hard to reinvent a genre that introduced us to Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Susan Boyle, Jennifer Hudson, and One Direction. And just five minutes into the first episode, it gives itself a big, pre-emptive pat on the back for doing so, announcing its freshness and novelty with all the humility of DJ Khaled yowling his own name at the beginning of a song. “This is not like the other shows,” says Sean “Diddy” Combs.
The rapper/producer/mogul, along with Khaled himself, Meghan Trainor, and the record executive Charlie Walk, is one of four judges on the show, which features a bullpen of supposedly great singers, selected off-camera, who are challenged each week by a group of hopefuls gunning for a spot as one of the eminent “Four”. First, they sing; then, the judges decide whether they’re good enough to challenge a member of the titular quartet, none of whom we initially see perform (which apparently means we’re expected to believe they’re the cream of the crop). If the judging panel unanimously approves of the upstart, he or she faces off against one of the mainstays, which is where the show veers tragically off-ramp into a strange and abrasive blend of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge and Drop the Mic, the karaoke rap-battle segment featured on James Corden’s late-night show.
In and of itself, the format is not a bad idea; it’s refreshing that the show bypasses the cringe-worthy auditions of American Idol, which will be rebooted this year on ABC with Katy Perry, and gets right to the point. But The Four, hosted by Fergie, who would almost surely be a better judge than MC, is worse than all its competition-show predecessors (Idol, The Voice, and The X-Factor among them) in just about every way.
Principally, the performers are worse, as is the judging panel, the members of which are interesting in theory but fail to make a single substantive comment for the duration of the two-hour premiere. At one point Walk, the president of Republic Records, calls a contestant “interesting” but says he’s “not what the show is about”; Diddy, whose penchant for hyperbole is matched only by Khaled, says he’s “in the history business”, which is supposed to mean he wants great, not good, singers. Later on, he tells a contestant: “It’s a cold, cruel world out there, and the truth will set you free.” Although the singers dutifully thank the judges for their feedback, it eludes the performers, and us, what on earth any of it means.
All of this makes one long for the early days (read: the first seven or eight seasons) of American Idol, which gave us truly superb vocalists and a judges’ panel that, while far from perfect, was not nearly as platitudinous and utterly disengaged as that of The Four. Trainor and Khaled are generally encouraging, while Diddy and Walk are a bit tougher, goading the challengers and the challengees into needlessly antagonistic exchanges (one calls her opponent a “cakewalk”) as opposed to simply allowing the performances to speak, or sing, for themselves.
If you’re one of those people who got tired of Idol after hearing so many note-for-note renditions of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, you might like The Four simply because of its diversity of genre: in the premiere, there are two rappers, one cover of Luis Fonsi’s Échame la Culpa, and an inventive version of Future’s Unforgettable by a soulful R&B singer. While the range of performers reflects the varying expertise of the judges and, in some ways, the current music landscape, picking contemporary songs makes the shortcomings of the contestants that much more self-evident. Case in point: a bad cover of Lorde’s Green Light appropriately earns the judges’ disapproval.
But what is it these singers are hoping to win, you ask? Well, there’s no mention of a record contract, as there was on Idol, nor a cash prize or even a gig, say, opening for one of the judges on a concert tour. Instead, the “ultimate prize” is vaguely referred to as “a career guided by the panel of hit-makers, all committed to creating a breakout star”. Whether such an inconclusive reward reflects the show’s dearth of talent or the judges’ lack of interest remains to be seen; what is certain, though, is that The Four doesn’t hold a candle to the shows that paved its way.