Tuned In

Crappy-Singing-Show Smackdown: Round One to Wayne Brady!

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Moeser and Brady rock out. Greg Gayne/FOX

In the middle of the first episode of Fox’s Don’t Forget the Lyrics last night, as the first contestant ran through a rendition of the Jackson Five’s ABC, a line from the song ran in giant capital letters on the onstage video display and the screen chyron: “READING, WRITING, ARITHMATIC…”

This in a song called “ABC.” Ah, I’m proud to be an American. Consider that the misspelling went past producers, crew, a sizable studio audience, and whatever other editors and executives it was run by before airing. Since the show was recorded live-to-tape, I suppose it’s arguable that they couldn’t fix the spelling on the video display or done another take. But you can fix a chyron. Did no one notice?*

OK, we’re no strangers to typos at Tuned In. And I guess it would have been more ironic if the misspelled word were “writing.” Or if this were a spelling bee and not a singing bee–but wait! This isn’t The Singing Bee either! This nimbly constructed Fox knockoff aired one night after NBC’s Singing Bee, and this morning, according to Nielsen’s “arithmatic,” there’s room for more than one crappy-singing contest in America. The Singing Bee and Don’t Forget the Lyrics are respectively, the number one and two highest rated new shows to debut this summer.

For two shows with exactly the same concept, Bee and Lyrics are actually fairly different. And after the first night, I have to give a slight edge to Fox’s ripoff. Lyrics has its problems, for starters its use of that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-like “money ladder” that’s in seemingly every new primetime game show. And the pacing could become an issue. Bee moves along breezily, giving singers a few bars of a song before they have to sing a line from memory, then going to the next singer. It’s paced like a daytime show, light and peppy, where Lyrics uses long pauses and an (also Millionaire-like) “lifeline” gimmick to needlessly drag out the suspense. It also lets the contestant sing sometimes as much as a whole verse and chorus before the blank line, which can test your patience for bad singing.

That might make Bee the better show in the long run. But with the right bad singer, Lyrics’ flaws can be a virtue, because you get to spend more time with the contestant. And last night’s player, Kate Moeser, was a pleasure to watch, a sparky entomologist with a Sarah Vowell nasal delivery and a preternatural knowledge of ’80s lyrics. (I’ll admit, I had to wonder if she was really a bug scientist or just a canny actress, but I didn’t much care.) Once you got past the quality of her voice–a stiff drink helped me with that, as at any karaoke bar–she was a pleasure to watch for her enthusiasm, as she delivered extra lines of The Bangles’ cheese opus Walk Like an Egyptian after the music stopped, just because she wanted to. And Wayne Brady, a funny guy who sings, is a far, far better choice as host than Joey Fatone, a singing guy who tries to be funny.

But fortunately, I don’t really have to choose a favorite. In half-hour bite-sized installments three nights a week, the two shows are perfect for dipping into indiscriminately. Lowbrow, low-commitment and high-concept, they’re consummate summer TV, a celebration of amateurism easily enjoyed and just as easily forgotten by fall. Like their singers, they don’t always hit the right notes, and that’s just as well.

* One explanation for the misspelling: it also appears in most versions of the lyrics for ABC turned up by a Google search. Let’s have a big hand for the Internet, ladies and gentlemen!