'Sing It On': TV Review

Rick Friedman
A pitch perfect reality show

This docu-series follows five of the nation's best a cappella groups as they compete to win the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

With its slick production numbers and heightened drama, it’s easy to forget that the hit movie Pitch Perfect is actually based in reality.

Just in time for the opening of Pitch Perfect 2 this weekend, Sing It On features five university a cappella groups: AcaBelles and All Night Yahtzee from Florida State University, Nor’easters and Pitch, Please! from Boston’s Northeastern University and No Comment from University of Illinois. The eight episode docu-series follows the groups as they compete in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), which we're informed is the “Super Bowl for a cappella.”

The series comes from Grammy-winner John Legend who sang in an a cappella group at the University of Pennsylvania. That Legend and the other producers love the genre is evident: the series dives deep into the a cappella world, with ample time given to the students’ performances as well as all the behind-the-scenes machinations it takes to form a winning group.

SIng It On begins with the audition process where the groups look to replace the seniors who have graduated. Much like American Idol, the talent varies wildly. There are those “who can sing, who think they can sing and who don’t sing at all,” Jessie, the president of the Nor’easters, says. The candidates are divided into “yes,” “no,” and “hell no” piles.

But unlike American Idol, the groups are looking for singers who not only sound good but  will fit in with the group socially — because these students spend a lot of time together. “Can they be one of our best friends?” Jessie wonders.

The audition process is arduous, and news of getting into the group is received with almost the same enthusiasm as making it to the Hollywood round on Idol. “Don’t fall asleep because we’ll tell you tonight,” Isaac, the music director for the Nor'easters, informs finalists before a few lucky ones get calls at 3 a.m. in the morning.

At first it may seem a little odd that of all the a cappella groups out there, the show chose to follow two at the same school (the AcaBelles and All Night Yahtzee from Florida State University). But it actually turns out to be fascinating, as the show takes viewers inside the competing groups' negotiations for the top talent on campus. Michael, the music director for All Night Yahtzee, seems particularly ready to fight to the death for the singers he wants.

After years of watching Glee, in which the New Directions could whip up a perfectly choreographed number at a moment’s notice, Sing It On is refreshing in its effort to show the hours and hours of rehearsal that go into a single performance. You may find yourself wondering when these students have time to study.

At times the camera confessionals seem overly rehearsed. “We tend to be very attractive people and we’re pretty aware of it. We would all consider ourselves at least a seven on the hot or not scale,” Michael says. And some of the activities seem staged. There’s an ostensibly impromptu sing-off — an aca-battle — of Britney Spears “Toxic" between Pitch Please and Nor’easters. But it seems a little unlikely that neither group knew they would be performing that song. They just happen to have the lyrics memorized? (If they really didn’t know, the Nor’easters were pretty amazing.)

The editing is also a little off. Pitch, Please! doesn’t appear on the scene until the second episode. No Comment gets comparatively very little screen time in the first episode but is the main focus of the second episode as the group competes in the ICCA Midwest quarterfinals in Chicago.

Immediately several students stand out. Michael and Isaac are forces of nature who easily command the attention of their respective groups. Jessica, the president of No Comment, is well-meaning, anxious for her group and has the tendency to unknowingly annoy her fellow members. Micah, the No Comment powerhouse soloist, is a perfectionist who is hard on the group and even harder on herself. Andie, the President of All Night Yahtzee, is the calmer, more reasonable counterpart to the petulant, take-no-prisoners Michael. And while there are certainly a few divas among the groups, the fighting stems from something real: a desire to create the best group and put on the best performance possible.

The suspense the show creates is palpable; watching No Comment compete in the quarterfinals is nerve-wracking, and, unlike a scripted series, there's no guarantee that these groups will go all the way to New York and the ICCA finals.

Sing It On also will restore your faith in the millennial generation. These kids are hard-working and dedicated, and they put their energy toward an impressive endeavor. That’s definitely something to sing about.