Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Very Pentatonix Christmas (NBC-TV, December 6, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an alternately moving and frustrating Christmas show on NBC called A Very Pentatonix Christmas — moving when the Pentatonickers were actually singing, frustrating when they were doing just about anything else. My hope that the show would be just an hour (less commercials) of engaging a cappella singing from Pentatonix were dashed early on, when they not only announced several guest stars — some of whom, like Jennifer Hudson and country singer Brett Eldridge (who’d appeared along with Pentatonix on last week’s Christmas at Rockefeller Center show), belonged on a music program, while others (Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Kermit the Frog and his evil doppelganger Konstantin) didn’t. The desperately unfunny Kermit/Konstantin sequence, apparently repeated from a previous year’s Pentatonix Christmas special (did someone actually think this was good?), was by far the most excruciating and oppressive segment of this often annoying program. It was more or less redeemed by some lovely singing, though Pentatonix still frustrates the hell out of me because of those damned drum-machine effects that ruin just about everything they sing. (As I’ve noted about them before, I originally thought they were cheating on the a cappella promise and using a real drum machine; later I found out it’s really one of the Pentatonickers vocally imitating a drum machine, but that didn’t make me like the sound any better.) 

They began with an O.K. medley of “Deck the Halls” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (“Let it Snow!”3 was also the song they performed on Christmas at Rockefeller Center) and did a short chorus of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with Kermit the Frog (whoever’s voicing him now has the inflections of Jim Henson down perfectly), then did “The Little Drummer Boy” reasonably effectively (though for some reason they left out the “Mary nodded/The ox and lamb kept time/I played my drum for him/I played my very best for him” chorus) and did a quite creatively arranged “take” on “Jingle Bells” before dragging out yet another unmusical and unfunny “guest star.” She was Darcy Lynn Farmer (at least that’s the best job I can do right now in deciphering my own notes — my handwriting has got so bad I could go to Congress and write the Republican tax bill!), the winner of the most recent season of America’s Got Talent! (a thoroughly horrible “reality” show I’ve joked should be called America’s Got Plenty of People Willing to Embarrass the Hell Out of Themselves to Get on Television!). She’s a 13-year-old “singer” (quotes definitely merited) and ventriloquist who, along with her dummy Petunia (who looks like the Velveteen Bunny), did an awful parody lyric to “O Tannenbaum” called “O Easter Egg.” (I’d like to reopen Devil’s Island to incarcerate the writer who actually thought this crap was entertaining.) 

Then there was another lame video segment in which computer-animated versions of the Pentatonickers and others did an almost as awful song called “Crusty the Snowman” (unlike Frosty, Crusty doesn’t melt — well, he does but then a sudden cold snap turns him into ice and he survives in that state — I warned you this wasn’t funny!). After that came the high point of the show: Jennifer Hudson in her current slimmed-down state joined Pentatonix for a searing gospel rendition of the old white hymn “How Great Thou Art” which, at least for the first chorus, outpointed even Mahalia Jackson (who sang it superbly but was handicapped by an Abbey Rents arrangement from a white orchestra and choir) on this song. Then they kicked in that damned drum-machine effect and the mood was weakened, if not spoiled completely. Next up came a version of “Carol of the Bells” and then Brett Eldredge joined Pentatonix for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — for which one of the Pentatonickers played piano. They closed the show with a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — if they had wanted to represent Lennon on a Christmas-themed show, why not “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”? — which was absolutely beautiful for the first chorus until, you guessed it, they started up that damned (simulated) drum machine again! The only music heard after that was a brief orchestral snatch of “Silent Night” over the closing credits. I like Pentatonix but I would like them a lot better if they stopped doing the drum-machine effects, and by chance earlier that morning I’d heard an old record by the granddaddies of their act, the Mills Brothers (who were billed as “Four Boys and a Guitar” — the guitar was the only “real” instrument they used; everything else you heard on the records was the Mills Brothers simulating instruments in the ways Bobby McFerrin was considered so innovative for doing in the late 1980’s), which put the whole Pentatonix phenomenon in badly-needed historical perspective.