The holiday special is a risky thing to attempt in this irony-soaked age. At its core, this type of program is designed to create an intimate, earnest—indeed, “special”—moment, a simulacrum (with varying degrees of glitz) of the joy and warmth we’re supposed to feel with friends and family during the holiday season. Watching a big special at this time of year—whether it’s a variety act or a classic movie like A Charlie Brown Christmas—promises the sense that the whole country is at one big Christmas party, everyone taking a break from the stress of our individual lives and stepping inside for an hour of cheer and hot chocolate. It’s old-fashioned, charming, cozy, delicate—and therefore, very, very easy to mess up.
Enter Cee Lo’s Magic Moment (TV Guide Network, Friday at 8 p.m. ET). The title art for Cee Lo Green’s new Christmas special features a scene of the singer careening out of control. The candy-apple Cadillac carrying him (bundled in snowy furs, of course) threatens to overrun a trio of flying white horses, while Santa C’s bag of presents—including his successful back catalog of neo-soul and Southern hip-hop hits—tumble, one-by-one, off into star-spangled space. The glowing reflection in Cee Lo’s sunglasses and expressionless face suggests something terribly bright in his future—but what? The glitter of Las Vegas, perhaps? Or, more specifically, the strobes and lasers and spotlighting of an overproduced, under-rehearsed Christmas show taking place in one of that city’s kitschy casinos?
The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. The holiday special need not be a stupid retro joke, nor need it be a craven grab for brand recognition—Lady Gaga’s A Very Gaga Thanksgiving last fall, while not perfect, was neither of those things. But Cee Lo’s slapdash evening, alas, is.
In the program’s first moments, a surprising admission reveals exactly what we’re in for: “A Christmas show in support of my Christmas album, Cee Lo Green’s Magic Moment.” Oh: So this is an infomercial, really. But then, given his aggressive pursuit of pop cultural notoriety since the arrival of his breakout hit, “Fuck You,” maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. A profile published in Fast Company earlier this year reveals the Joan Rivers-like lengths Cee Lo has gone to in order to cement his fame:
Cee Lo moved fast: mocking his taboo lyrics on Saturday Night Live; performing in feathers on the Grammys with the Muppets and Gwyneth Paltrow; spinning his piano upside down over the audience at the Billboard Music Awards. Since then, he’s played the Super Bowl and a fundraiser for President Obama, to cite obvious highlights. Despite appearances, “we don’t do it all,” Cee Lo says. “We do what counts. If there was an easier way to be branded the way that I am branded now, I’m sure we would have entertained that as an option. But if that’s what was necessary to become the brand that I am, then I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The allure of Cee Lo’s brand, and especially his musical performance here, can be effectively summed up in his half-hearted delivery of the line, “I said a-rooty-toot-toot and a-rum-pa-pum-pum.” But a piecemeal show like this depends, at least to some extent, on the quality of your special guest stars. The first? None other than the Phantom of the Opera, who emerges from beneath the background projection screen, which has heretofore displayed visualizations of the type you might see on an old version of Windows Media Player. Being a maestro, he is, of course, surrounded by a battery of some kind of instrument-devices. His very serious, very awkward gesturing suggests that they are motion activated (like Theremins), but when his big solo moment comes, nothing audible happens. The unmasked half of his face looks sheepish.
Then, there are Cee Lo’s students from The Voice where he is a judge and mentor. He has kindly brought them all on a field trip to Vegas, and there are so many of them that differentiating enough to judge individual talent is mostly impossible. However, when one labeled (in, it seems, Word Art) as Jamar Rogers is tasked with singing “This Christmas” with Cee Lo and another classmate, he can’t seem to clap in time. Also, did you hear what I heard? Yes, that high note that the one called James Massone was supposed to sing was overdubbed, and I swear on my Autotune that the disembodied voice was Cee Lo’s, not his. The patch job is fabulously grating and gutsy—even magical, in its way.
And, bless their souls, I haven’t even mentioned the awkward number in which a bemused Rod Stewart and Cee Lo spend a few harrowing minutes gesturing toward each other’s precarious masculinity, or showmanship, or something, or the unsettling moment when Cee Lo has the gall to hit on Mrs. Piggy, creepily noting with pleasure the size of her nose and later offering that, you know, he is, himself, “kind of a big Muppet, a little bit.”
Here’s the question that all this raises: Has Cee Lo Green successfully transformed from musician into a showman? Or put another way, from artist into novelty item? After all, novelty items can be wonderful and entertaining in their own way. However, if this special is any indication of Cee Lo’s future as a song-and-dance man (he is set to launch a show in Vegas titled Cee Lo Green is LOBERACE), there’s a great deal of room for improvement. My recommendations: Create something that doesn’t look like it took three hours and some Scotch tape to throw together, and—small steps!—actually appear interested in your own performance.