Where do they come up with these contestants? Were they recruited from some kind of Red Bull summer camp? Are they downing piles of jumping beans before the show? Watching the hyperactive players on TV's two new karaoke contests, NBC's "The Singing Bee" and Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics!," is mesmerizing. These jubilant Jacks and Jills just don't stop moving. They're so ecstatic, so totally jazzed to be in front of a live audience and millions of TV viewers, that they seem on the verge of spontaneous combustion.
Perhaps they're missing the shy gene. Or maybe, like so many Americans, they're used to public appearances -- on their video blogs or on their audition tapes for "Big Brother 38." In any case, without these raging extroverts, both series would be nothing. As on "Deal or No Deal," the simplistic formula of the contest is quite secondary to the rivetingly peppy kooks who make the hosts look so very sane.
Joey Fatone, sporting well-coiffed eyebrows, is the good-humored host of "The Singing Bee," which debuted Tuesday . The former 'N Sync singer and "Dancing With the Stars" runner-up appears somewhat stolid, as the contestants and the show's format move around him in double time. The half-hour seems to fly past him as a half-dozen dancing karaoke singers are winnowed to one, and as a small troupe of leggy dancers usher us in and out of commercial breaks. There's not an ounce of empty air on this show.
" The Singing Bee" challenge is for each contestant to fill in the lyrics to songs such as "Venus" and "Joy to the World" when the music stops. Every word counts, so "Well, I'm your Venus" is wrong; it's simply "I'm your Venus." The challenge on "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" is just as nitpicky, but the format of the show is quite different, and better. It moves at a slower pace, though not a slow pace, as the half - hour zeroes in on one player at a time.
This week, a contestant named Katie Mosher took center stage like an old pro. Even the show's cheery host, Wayne Brady, seemed slightly awed by her esprit, and at one point he grabbed an audience member and did backup dancing for her. "Are you ready to sing?" he asked her, and her answer came in the very next beat: "I'm always ready to sing."
Mosher, both little-girl cutesy and wildly extroverted at the same time, made Brady's job easy. She also made watching "Don't Forget" easier than watching "The Singing Bee," since she was on stage long enough for us to root for her -- or against her. On "The Singing Bee," it's impossible to rally for or against the many folks who hurry on and off stage, and rallying is a critical part of the fun of these mindless game shows.
The reality TV wars are such that we now have a number of shows about wife swapping, nannies, and modeling. In this case, the duplication came after NBC announced "The Singing Bee" for the fall, and then Fox scheduled a karaoke knockoff for the summer. In retaliation, NBC rushed its show on the air the night before Fox's premiere.
Oddly, Fox's less insanely frenetic show looks and feels more like an NBC show. The sustained rapport between the host and the contestant is reminiscent of "Deal or No Deal." And the NBC show moves more like a Fox show, with its relentless flash and its rush to jump among contestants and overwhelm us with fast cuts. The moral of the story: One danger of unnecessary competition is that it can turn you into your competitor.