Whiling away the hours before another grim episode of Smash last night, we went against our better judgment and watched a two-hour episode of The Voice, the first live episode of the NBC singing competition's second season. And, hey, it wasn't half bad!

What we saw of last year's contestants wasn't great; they seemed somehow even more amateurish than the warbly American Idol kids, perhaps owed to the fact that they were surrounded by all the ridiculous pomp and circumstance — a light-swirling black stage of doom, celebrities hamming it up while perched on thrones, ginned-up excitement created out of nowhere — that NBC is turning into a cottage industry. Something about the show was even cheesier than Idol, and the contestants didn't have the chops to cut through (or, y'know, chop through) all that artifice.

The beginnings of this season didn't seem to indicate that that would be changing any. Amid all the swivel chair antics and the creaky judge hamming — they pretend to fight and bicker with each other, all the while looking tired and bored behind the eyes — was a lackluster group of song-screamers who didn't earn all the whooping and hyping. But, of course, that was weeks and weeks ago and we hadn't yet seen the full breadth of the show's pool of talent. Last night though, which marked the first America votes! part of the competition, after initial auditions and fairly ridiculous battle rounds in which the judges (who are also mentors) whittle down their teams to the favorites, we in theory saw the best and the brightest, and, hey, some of them were certainly bright.

There was a former Alicia Keys backup singer who sang a competent and almost rousing "Livin' On a Prayer," which sure is kind of a lame karaoke/college party song at this point, but very few songs on singing competition shows aren't. The girl named Naia who sang an Adele song (OK, guys, enough with the Adele for now, please, just please) wasn't exactly Maria Callas, but there was more idiosyncrasy and detail in her performance than a million Jessica Sanchezes put together. Another member of Team Blake (two of the four judge/mentors' teams went last night, the other two will go next week) had a sad story in her intro package and then banged out a stirring Stevie Wonder jam. It's nice that some of these folks seem a little older and more mature than the Idol tweens, though of course sometimes that coltish inexperience is the most entertaining thing about these shows.

As for the folks in Xtina's song harem, the standout (for us, anyway) was the comely opera singer named Chris, who thundered out "Bridge Over Troubled Water" like the chandelier was about to fall. It wasn't perfect, of course, but what ever is? He's cute and sings opera but is on a pop singing show! Good for him! There was a guy on Christina's team who rapped pretty incompetently, and we were left wondering, what is the point of rapping to someone else's song on a talent show? Like, isn't 7/10ths of rap skill making up your own rhymes and showing dexterity with them? Being able to mumble out Kanye doesn't really prove much of anything. But, what do we know. Lastly a teenage girl blared out Alanis Morissette's "Right Through You" with enough confident wail to rival any Siobhan Magnus or other Idol screecher. Not bad, guys! Not half bad at all.

Of course, we still remain firm Idol devotees. Despite the obvious talent on display on The Voice last night, the show is still torpedoed for us by everything surrounding them. The set is trying to be too cool, rather than the respectably blatant, "who cares," glittery schlockfest of the Idoldome. And the judges, ugh the judges. They drop little nuggets and kernels of wisdom here and there, but the rest is inane, awkward banter. They're only two years into this game, so they've miles to go before they really settle into any comfy rhythms, but Christina's constant hyuk-hyuk gay-panic jokes about Blake Shelton and Adam Levine were alone enough to make us want to change the channel. That's like some serious season three Seacrest v. Cowell nonsense, Xtina. Can it with that stuff. For his part, Cee Lo is clearly checked out and just trying to have fun with his costumes, which is fine, but it's also useless. And obviously Adam Levine is a creepy slickster who probably has many dark and terrifying things hidden in his basement. Yeah, the judges are not good.

But, that said, we no longer outright revile this show based on very little info. We atone for that. We judged a book by its laser-strewn shiny black cover and that was perhaps unfair. So, we bid these kids sincere good luck, but then turn, grateful to be home, back to good ol' American Idol. It's just the right place to be.