It might have the same name, but Popstars is nothing like the original show. And that’s a problem, writes Sam Brooks.
The first episode of Popstars, way back in 1999, got through the auditions stage in one segment, literally 10 minutes of television. The rebooted version of Popstars, which aims to find New Zealand’s next big pop music artist and load them up with a $100,000 prize, will have gone through four hours of television before the auditions wrap up – three episodes this week, and one at the start of next week.
The original Popstars was an excellent example of how to do reality TV well. The show had a clear concept and solid objective: create a successful girl group in our own backyard. The show had a huge personality driving it – the irascible Peter Urlich – and in TrueBliss, five charismatic talents to eventually revolve around. It was also fresh as hell, sitting right on the fulcrum between docu-series and reality TV. It holds up brilliantly 21 years later not just as a beloved pop cultural artefact, but as genuinely great TV. There’s a reason why people remember it fondly, and why TVNZ has made it the vanguard of its programming slate this year.
Which is unfortunate, because the show that TVNZ has made isn’t Popstars.
This version of Popstars is a slightly rejigged version of the Idol/Voice/X-Factor talent show concept, with a greater focus on the songwriting process, stretched out to three episodes a week. The format worked in the 2000s, but who was the last winner of any of those shows that you could name? It doesn’t work in a landscape where stardom is determined by virality as much anything else. It also fundamentally misunderstands why people watch reality TV, or TV at all. We need real people, yes, but real people on their own aren’t enough: we need hooks, drama and tension too.
Watching nice people with their whole lives ahead of them – most of the contestants we see are in their teens and 20s – competently performing original songs does not provide enough dramatic tension. The closest the first week gets to tense is when a Pākehā girl performs ‘I’m Here’ from The Colour Purple, a song from the perspective of Celie, an African-American woman in the early 20th century.
I’d wager that’s not the kind of tension the producers were looking for.
People will sit through pretty much anything if the talent’s there. While some of the contestants might prove to be engaging – Jireh from the third episode has charisma that leaps off the screen, as does Amber Carey Williams, an aural dead ringer for Phoebe Bridgers – it’s hard to get a read on most of the contestants because there’s so many of them. The first week alone includes 30 full auditions, and the show fails to find a good balance between giving us enough story to engage with each individual contestant and propelling the overall narrative of the show. (And there’s still one more episode of auditions to go! The story hasn’t even started yet.)
The main talent problem isn’t the contestants, though. It’s the panel. It’s a bad sign that the most compelling person in all three of the first week’s episodes is Bella Kalolo, who serves as one of two preliminary judges for the contestants before they meet the panel of Kimbra, Vince Harder and Nathan King. Even though Kalolo is only seen in montages, it’s clear she’s emotionally engaged in a way that nobody else in the series seems to be. When someone nails it, she’s ebullient and reactive. When someone flubs it, there’s genuine compassion in her rejection. There’s more star power in those brief moments than there is in the rest of the show thus far.
Meanwhile Kimbra, who appears to serve as both judge and host, is remote where the show badly needs vibrancy. Although she’s meant to be the drawcard – it’s her image that’s front and centre in the marketing – she lacks the sort of magnetism that keeps a good reality show together. It doesn’t help that her feedback to contestants comes off more as a disinterested HR rep rather than somebody on the search for New Zealand’s next popstar. She sends off one contestant with a “maybe” and then says, “Honestly you’re really going places so I hope you feel encouraged by your process.” It’s the judging equivalent of “I hope this finds you well.”
Vince Harder and Nathan King (of the band Zed) are warmer, but there’s a huge lack of engagement between the panel. They don’t disagree, barely seem to discuss anything at all and, most devastatingly, never argue passionately for any of the contestants. If the panel is allowed to send people off with a “very strong maybe”, an audible shrug, then how can they expect the audience to invest in anybody on screen? By contrast, Peter Urlich cared so much about the success of his group that it felt like he could reach out of the screen and shake you by the shoulders, begging you to buy ‘Tonight’ on cassette. This panel doesn’t seem to care enough to ask us to stream a song on Spotify.
There’s room for it to change. There’s only so many auditions they can show, after all. The ship could right itself once the series actually gets down to moulding the contestants into popstars, and putting them in competition against each other. What the show has paid attention to thus far, and the talent it’s assembled, doesn’t look promising, however. It might turn out that Popstars was the real one-hit wonder after all.
Popstars airs on TVNZ2 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7.30pm.
In the latest episode of The Real Pod, Alex, Duncan and Jane struggle to find the words to describe the reboot of Popstars, and are left reeling by a week of truly revealing final dates on MAFS AU. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.