Fox decided to retire "American Idol," then experienced remorse when ABC stepped in to acquire the franchise. Yet the network's attempt to fill the void, "The Four: Battle for Stardom," is an uninspired addition to the singing-competition genre, with as much "American Gladiators" in its DNA as "Idol."
Featuring Fergie as host, and a panel of judges headlined by Sean "Diddy" Combs and Meghan Trainor, the show labors to create tension points throughout. Aspiring contenders perform, seeking an opportunity to challenge four pre-screened and selected artists and knock them off their perches, counting down to an eventual winner.
That framework, alas, encourages bravado, bragging and bluster, as the four ensconced performers look on -- with reaction shots ranging from concern to grudging admiration -- while insisting they would like nothing better than to face off against the upstarts. The judges decide who earns the right to challenge (one veto ends the threat), while the audience selects the winner of each competition.
The rules are a tad convoluted, but like "The Voice," the hope was clearly to incorporate just enough of a gimmick to distinguish the series from what's come before it. The problem is that everyone conspicuously feels as if they're playing roles -- indeed, trying too hard to the point of overacting -- beginning with the banter among the judges, a panel that also includes producer DJ Khaled and record exec Charlie Walk, whose blunt assessments suggest a desire to position him as a sort-of poor man's Simon Cowell.
"Attention America: No karaoke singers. This is not that show," Diddy states emphatically, underscoring the show's mandate to unearth "America's next big superstar."
"The Four" is only scheduled for a six-week run, which both compresses the competition and somewhat mitigates Fox's exposure if the concept fails in its battle to impress the Nielsen judges. (Fox executives have said that "Idol" became too expensive relative to its performance, a factor to be considered in terms of how well "The Four" fills its old shoes.)
As "The Voice" demonstrated, there's obviously room for more than one talent competition. But with "Idol" returning in March on ABC, it's not clear how much of a market exists for another pallid clone, which could leave Fox as the odd network out.
During her introduction, Fergie billed the new program as "The first and only show where every episode is like a finale." If the reference were intended to mean that viewers have marginal incentive to tune in the next week, then mission accomplished.
"The Four: Battle for Stardom" premieres Jan. 4 at 8 p.m. on Fox.