television review

'Clash' cashes in on holiday sentiment

'Clash of the Choirs' Patti LaBelle (right) gets the best out of her group on "Clash of the Choirs," a competition that benefits charity. (Eric Liebowitz / NBC)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 20, 2007

Thank you, NBC, for giving us the chance to live in Patti LaBelle's world this week on "Clash of the Choirs." As her royal subjects, we were bestowed with endless waves of vibrant diva love that found their way through the TV screen and straight into our hearts. Endlessly fanning herself, a sufferer of the longest menopause ever known to woman, Queen Patti made us all feel good - or else.

LaBelle was but one of the ho-ho-hokey pleasures of "Clash of the Choirs," the singing contest that NBC is wrapping up tonight at 8 after nightly airings this week. Yes, it's easy to mock the series, which has packaged holiday uplift without even a passing nod to subtlety. The show's grabs for schmaltz - images of soldiers in uniform, a sobbing Katrina survivor, the singing husband and daughter of a woman with breast cancer - have been as in-your-face as a Sally Struthers starving-children commercial. The figurative boo-hoo string section shows up every few minutes, along with Nick Lachey's toothy smile and Michael Bolton's carefully manscaped chest hair.

But "Clash" has been a satisfying experi ence, too, as the rich choral singing has had the power to drown out much of the manipulation and mawkish sentiment. The group performances - 20 strangers of all ages, sizes, and colors building a song together and making it sail - have been hard to resist. Even songs such as the Pretenders' insipid "I'll Stand By You" and Natasha Bedingfield's poppish "Unwritten" have taken on a grandeur in their open-mouthed choral versions. And that rousing momentum becomes even greater as we see team leaders LaBelle, Lachey, Bolton, Blake Shelton, and Kelly Rowland dance proudly while conducting their amateur choirs.

"Clash of the Choirs" borrows most of its live-contest moves from "American Idol," and it certainly is trying to steal some "Idol" thunder before "Idol" premieres next month. But it runs on a spirit of cooperation that "Idol" doesn't have and doesn't want to have. The team leaders support one another and their choir members; and the choir members support their lead singers. The endgame of "Clash" isn't individual fame and fortune (the winning choir donates the $250,000 prize to charity). I do think this polite, sharing atmosphere would wear thin over the course of weeks; it would certainly need to be cut with some high-grade Simon Cowell. But for four days of seasonal inspiration, it works just fine.

Next to "Clash of the Choirs," ABC's weeklong game show "Duel" has been a plug for the more commercial side of the holidays. If "Clash" has been a visit to the greeting-cards section at CVS, "Duel" has been a shopping trip where we lock reindeer horns over the remaining Wii consoles. "Duel" is essentially about setting 24 players up against one another, each with the goal of becoming the sole winner of more than $1.5 million in the Sunday finale.

What I like about the game is that it's not painfully simple, like "Deal or No Deal," which was similarly introduced in the week prior to Christmas 2005. Indeed, the rules and procedures of "Duel" have some slight complexity, and they will require the victor to have both enough smarts to answer trivia questions and enough savvy to choose inferior opponents.

But the trash-talking among the contestants is forced, and so are the production's efforts to create Big Drama - the long buildups, the severe music, the futuristic set design. They are stagy methods deployed to distract us from the fact that watching people play what is essentially a board game is kind of tiresome.

As the writers' strike stretches on, and programming desperation continues to grow, ABC will probably bring out "Duel" again for a longer run. When scripts are scarce, doling out free money might pay.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit


On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, Friday night, and Sunday night, 8-9

Clash of the Choirs

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 8-9

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