Spike has found itself a breakout hit. In April, Lip Sync Battle aired the most-watched premiere in the history of the cable network best known for Bar Rescue and Ink Master. In every episode, two celebrities face off, each pantomiming two songs of their choice. LL Cool J and Chrissy Teigen serve as host and color commentator, respectively.
Spike president Kevin Kay has called the show, renewed for a second season within a few weeks of its debut, "a television and viral rock star." He's not wrong. Forget traditional ratings: Lip Sync Battle has racked up hundreds of millions of streams online.
There's only one problem with Lip Sync Battle, which is that it is bad.
As the story goes, the lip sync battle format was dreamed up by Office alum John Krasinski on a road trip with actress Emily Blunt, his wife, and writer and comedian Stephen Merchant. Krasinski brought the bit to his May 7, 2013 appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Lip sync battles quickly became a fixture of Fallon's hosting repertoire, even after he upgraded to The Tonight Show. More often than not, the results have been delightful.
The aesthetic difference between Spike's Lip Sync Battles and the pared-down version of the game still played by Fallon's guests is best illustrated by two Tina Turner performances. John Krasinski's version of "Proud Mary" from an April episode of Lip Sync Battle—of which he's an executive producer, as is Merchant—operates on a simple premise: he is a man, wearing a dress. Comedy achieved.
Back in February 2014, Paul Rudd lip synced "Better Be Good to Me" on The Tonight Show. The song starts one minute into this clip:
I'm not sure it's possible to watch that video without falling at least a little bit in love with Ant-Man. He turns in a performance that's not only beautifully precise in its technical execution, but weird, and personal, and incredibly specific. It's not hard to imagine a teenage Rudd practicing his "Better Be Good to Me" in the mirror with a hairbrush mic. He doesn't just know the lyrics, but he nails every one of Tina's vocal flourishes. Whereas the man we once knew as Jim Halpert is flanked by background dancers, Rudd—wearing a regular-old suit, the uniform of late night—is alone with his microphone. This is in no way a joke; he's fully, unabashedly committed.
Other notable Fallon lip sync efforts include Joseph Gordon-Levitt's manic "Super Bass," Merchant's "Boom Shake the Room" (both of which you can, and probably should, watch here), and Emma Stone's "Hook." Her dexterity with this extended Blues Traveler tongue twister—which, by the way, was one hell of an unexpected choice—is sublime. She kicks off at the two-minute mark:
Stone dissected that song with a scalpel, but Lip Sync Battle favors a sledgehammer. As with Fallon's lip sync battles, celebrities alternate performing two songs each, and their selections are a surprise to their competitors. But that's where the similarities end.
The song choices skew obvious, too popular and too impersonal. The worst are punchlines in and of themselves, like Julianne Hough's "I Just Had Sex" or Deion Sanders' "Like a Virgin." Like Krasinski, Neon Deion is apparently a graduate of the Dude in a Dress School of Comedic Arts.
The performances tend to be sloppy, as much about running around the stage as they are about actual lip syncing. Michael Strahan is one of several LSB contestants who failed to memorize the words to his songs—this is Lip Syncing 101, you guys—which he tries to play off by obscuring his mouth with the microphone for "London Bridge." But even reuniting the original lineup of Bell Biv DeVoe can't hide how lost he is in "Poison."
Perhaps to pad what was originally a five-minute sketch to fill a half-hour timeslot—and in part, I suspect, as a crutch to soothe insecure lip syncers—the production values are off-puttingly high. Backup dancers, props, and ridiculous costumes come standard. Lip Sync Battle is essentially a gimmick arms race, with Anne Hathaway impersonating Miley Cyrus (and doing a pretty fantastic job of it, we should add) on an in-studio wrecking ball, and Anna Kendrick trotting out J. Lo to do nothing more than stand beside her for three seconds of "Booty."
These stunts are, at best, distracting, and at worst, a safety net. They're a poor, low-stakes substitute for actual ability or emotional investment.
But what's truly insulting about Lip Sync Battle is the extent to which its guest stars are convinced of their own hilarity and cuteness. Rather than bothering to half-heartedly lip sync through his rump-shaking version of "9 to 5," Willie Geist might as well have shouted, "Look how hilarious and self-effacing I'm being! Aren't I just the best?" Hoda Kotb's wedding-drunk enthusiasm on "Uptown Funk" and "Baby Got Back" is not unendearing, but as she mugs for the camera with her eyes bulging wide, the implication is the same: "Can you believe it? Me, doing this?!"
After all, it's more comfortable to play lip syncing for laughs than to embrace the vulnerability of really trying—just as it's easy to be above it all, but hard to be the nerd who cares. On Lip Sync Battle, celebrities ask that we put them on a pedestal, giving them a handicap beyond what we'd afford a mere mortal taking the stage at a talent show.
If you don't accept the proposition that televised lip syncing can be a powerful, transformative form of artistic expression, you obviously don't watch RuPaul's Drag Race. The Logo series is the greatest possible iteration of competition-based TV, assigning challenges that combine design, dance, singing, comedy, and modeling to its wildly creative cast members, who would each be the single most interesting person on any other reality show. Lip syncing, a traditional drag show staple, is a key part of every episode. The two contestants with the weakest performances are instructed to "lip sync for your life," then RuPaul chooses one drag queen to eliminate from the competition.
Watch DiDa Ritz's show-stopping, ecstatic "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)," in which she brings down the house in front of Natalie Cole herself. There's less emotion in the best LSB performance than in one strand of DiDa's wig.
Though many of Drag Race's most memorable lip syncs are high-energy affairs, on the other end of the spectrum, there are standouts like Latrice Royale's moving but restrained "Natural Woman," or Jujubee and Raven's tear-jerking "Dancing on My Own." No one's asking the celebrities on Lip Sync Battle to death drop, but we should expect them to serve at least a little bit of realness.
This is not say that Lip Sync Battle has been totally devoid of great performances. Broad City star Abbi Jacobson's impassioned "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is a must-watch, as is the way Dwayne Johnson sticks the landing on the spoken-word breakdown in "Shake It Off." Stephen Merchant displays an unparalleled willingness to debase himself to "Dirrty," having found possibly the only pair of leather chaps on the planet that could fit his 6'7" frame.
It's also worth noting that Lip Sync Battle features a vastly more diverse pool of celebrities than Fallon's version of the game ever has. The one and only person of color yet to lip sync on The Tonight Show is Kevin Hart. On last night's hour-long season LSB finale alone, Empire leads Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard jointly lip synced "Hard Out Here for a Pimp," their Oscar-winning song from Hustle & Flow.
Somewhere, deep down inside Lip Sync Battle, is an excellent show. That show might forbid props, awkward cameo appearances, or anonymous dance troupes who've learned extensive choreography for the occasion. That show might involve openly berating celebrities for shitty lip syncing, or—god forbid—forcing them to perform karaoke instead. That show might even give the criminally underused Chrissy Teigen something to do.
But will we ever see that show? Don't count on it.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.