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Why The Sing-Off Is the Most Important Show on Television

OK, it's not exactly. But bigger, louder TV shows could learn a lot from this a cappella competition's proud nerdiness.

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Tyler Golden/NBC

Regular readers of this blog might be familiar with NBC‘s The Sing-Off, which returns tonight for a holiday run, by my preferred name for it: The Most Important Show on Television. That’s a joke, sort of, and it’s sort of not. It’s a joke because an a cappella singing competition airing for a couple of weeks during the slow Christmas season is the opposite of momentous, bombastic, event TV. And it’s dead serious because that’s precisely what’s great about The Sing-Off: it lays no claims to world-blowing spectacle or to creating the next international music celebrity. (Though previous winners Pentatonix are doing just fine for themselves.)

Instead, it does one modest thing well, and that’s an important thing for TV to do, whether drama, comedy, or reality. One quality that many excellent TV shows have in common is specificity: rather than try to offer something for everyone or sand down their eccentricities, they focus on a specific milieu or geographic location or set of obsessions, and they manage to find something universal in those particulars.

For Friday Night Lights, say, that was small-town Texas and the culture of high-school football. For The Sing-Off, it’s a cappella. It’s hard to imagine a nerdier preoccupation for a musical reality show, but I mean that as no insult. We live in the age of the nerd–that is, of enthusiasts of very particular subjects and pastimes. In the case of a cappella: let’s just say that it’s not an area of music you get into from dreams of global superstardom. You do it for the love of it, and The Sing-Off, with its doo-woppers and gospel singers and beatboxers, makes that love contagious by celebrating the irreplaceable magic of the human voice box.

The Sing-Off has also had the best judging of any competition show on TV, partly because of its willingness to own its nerdiness. Returning judges Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman aren’t putdown artists or catchphrase machines, and while they’re known professionals, they’re not brands, in the way that Voice of American Idol panelists are. They’re able to drill down into the mechanics of a performance–dynamics, harmonies, and intangibles–in a way that’s concrete and detailed but also accessible to musical idiots like me; their comments are the closest that reality shows come to actual music criticism. (I’ll reserve judgment about Jewel, who fills in for departing Sara Bareilles this season.)

In fall 2011, NBC tried elevating The Sing-Off to a regular weekly series, and that very nearly killed it. It was like trying to make a weekly series out of the National Spelling Bee or the Westminster Dog Show; the competition is a treat, but it’s not the stuff of a primetime blockbuster, and the ratings showed it. Fortunately NBC brought it back where it belonged, in the low-stakes holiday carol season, where it can let its choral-freak flag fly under less pressure.

We’ll get only seven episodes of The Sing-Off this time out, but it seems exactly right to run it ephemerally at the holidays. It’s a gift.