What if American Idol had been around in the 1950s and Elvis Presley entered the competition? Would the judges have simply crowned him the winner after one episode? The new season of The Sing-Off (Monday, 7 p.m., NBC) faces a similar situation.
The a cappella competition features more of the usual flavorless ensembles, harmonizing with intense but pointless energy. Then comes Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town. As the former lead singer, arranger and resident genius of the Persuasions, Lawson is to a cappella music what Elvis was to rock 'n' roll: the king, with the power to break or lift your heart at will. It's a talent he shares with Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and other soul greats, though he's not as famous as they are.
You'd think that would make The Sing-Off an unfair fight, but 66-year-old Lawson is not the singer he used to be. As he admits in his intro segment, he fell on hard times and left the Persuasions. Indeed, the last time I heard him live his voice was tattered and his stage presence shaky. I worried he'd make a fool of himself in this comeback attempt and face censure from a panel of pop-star judges who aren't fit to tie his shoes.
I won't tell you how Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town fare in their debut performance. I'll only say that it took three hits of smelling salts to revive me.
American Country Awards
Monday, 7 pm (Fox)
I love the U.S.A., the troops, mothers, and people who live high up on the ridge as much as anyone else. But I can't help feeling that contemporary country-music stars are playacting when they affirm these verities loudly and repeatedly in self-serving venues like last month's CMA Awards. The winners thanked Jesus while plugging their product and paying obeisance to their multinational entertainment conglomerates. If I were Jesus, I'd wonder if they cared about Warner Bros. Records more than me. It didn't help that the many tributes to the simple country life were juxtaposed with slick production values, glittering designer gowns and surgically altered faces.
That doesn't mean I won't watch Fox's new American Country Awards. The reason, quite simply, is Taylor Swift, who's up for three awards. Swift was stunning at the CMAs, singing her heart out while accompanying herself on piano. Any genre that produces such a performer can't be all bad.
Thank you, Jesus, for Taylor Swift.
Monday, 8 pm (TNT)
TNT has asked critics not to say anything about the major plot point in this week's episode, which marks The Closer's return to the air. That makes it hard to say anything at all, since everything flows from this development. All I can tell you is that Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) questions suspects in her preposterously stagy Southern accent; and that she solves the case using way-too-cutesy stratagems.
Wait...maybe TNT didn't want me to say any of that, either?
Tabatha's Salon Takeover
Monday, 9 pm (Bravo)
Beginning its third season, Tabatha's Salon Takeover is TV's scariest reality series. American hair salon owners are startled when intimidating Brit Tabatha Coffey suddenly shows up in black leather, thigh-high stiletto boots and related dominatrix wear. Tabatha stares daggers at the owners, pointing out problems at the salons as the staff and viewers cringe in fear.
In the season premiere, Tabatha storms into Mia Bella outside San Francisco, calling it "the filthiest salon I've ever seen." Within a week, she has scared the slovenly employees straight, to the point where they start cleaning out the back-room refrigerator without even being asked. Better that than having your head bitten off.
After watching the episode, I hurried off to clean my own fridge. You never know when Tabatha might show up.
Wednesday, 9 pm (Bravo)
The new edition of Top Chef features talented contestants from previous seasons who got close to winning. That means they all have a chip on their shoulder, and they enter the competition with insane delusions of grandeur. "I'm back because I should have won!" insists one. "My season was the best ever because of me!" brags another.
Their arrogance only intensifies when the cooking begins. "I am more than happy with it," says smug Jen of her dish. "I think I'm on top." All the other contestants think they're on top, too.
Their overconfidence makes the judging round especially fun, as many of them get taken down a peg. Jen, it turns out, doesn't know how to cook duck. Of another contestant's pasta dish, judge Anthony Bourdain says, "It was brown, it was wet, it was horrifying-looking."
Most of the cocky chefs are forced to eat crow, without even a béarnaise sauce to mask the taste.