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From ‘One Love Manchester’ To ‘America’s Got Talent,’ Bringing A Much-Needed Ray of Joy and Hope to Primetime TV
June 8, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

Watching the One Love Manchester benefit concert this past weekend for the victims of the May 22 bombing outside Manchester Arena in the UK, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the healing balm of music in troubled times.

Behind the music, there was more going on. A lot more. For anyone who caught the live broadcast, the live stream on Twitter or the delayed video of the full three-hour, 23-minute concert on YouTube, it was a reminder of how rare a genuine feel-good moment is on TV days.

There was an unalloyed sense of hope and joy at the Old Trafford cricket ground, whether it was the fresh, beaming young faces in the crowd or the helicopter shots of high-vis-jacketed police officers dancing to the beat, linked arm-in-arm in a heart shaped circle with moms and their young daughters, many of whom had been in Manchester Arena that fateful night in May. (Concert promoters, Ariana Grande, right, and her manager Scooter Braun, set aside 14,000 comped tickets for anyone who could show that they had been at Grande’s concert on May 22.)

It felt good, to borrow a lyric from the late, great James Brown.

When Oasis exile and native Mancunian Liam Gallagher (below) walked out onstage, unannounced and (to put it mildly) unexpectedly, alongside Coldplay frontman Chris Martin (below), the adoring crowd went wild. Just last year, Gallagher had disparagingly dismissed  Martin as “a geography teacher,” “the vicar” and ”a plant pot,” and uncharitably described the band itself as “beyond shite” (American-English translation not needed).

Gallagher tore into the Oasis single “Live Forever,” Manchester’s unofficial theme of defiance, alongside Martin and Coldplay lead guitarist Johnny Buckland. The moment was electrifying. As electrifying as it was unexpected.

The subtext was clear: If Gallagher and Coldplay could bury the hatchet on their feud, the world would be a better place.

These are worrying times on TV right now, to judge from the best and most-talked about scripted dramas. From Better Call Saul, Fargo, Homeland, House of Cards, The Americans and The Handmaid’s Tale to the nihilistic, violent and increasingly depressing Twin Peaks: The Return, TV’s reflection of modern times is a dark and disturbing place to be, short on hope, joy and anything even remotely approaching optimism.

It may be that hope and joy are simply harder to do on TV than cynicism and depression, at least in a way that doesn’t come across as mawkish and sentimental. Feel-good TV always runs the risk of appearing to be deliberately cloying or, worse, cynically manipulative, in the same way Grande was careful not to be seen as capitalizing on the tragedy to push her own brand — her new album, her concert tour, her position in the hyper-competitive music industry.

As it happened, Grande pulled off her high-wire walk like a charm. As a TV broadcast, One Love Manchester was an early highlight of my TV year.

I felt similar feelings of hope and optimism when I watched America’s Got Talent this week. 

AGT has always been kind of goofy and silly. It’s airy and light as a feather, ideal stay-at-home entertainment for the dog days of summer. It’s to parent network NBC’s credit — and I don’t often say those words — that NBC’s decision makers haven’t moved AGT to fall and winter when the audience is bigger, and potential ad profits are greater. For now, they’re content to take those chart-topping summer ratings and leave fall and winter to The Voice.

When 29-year-old hearing-impaired singer Mandy Harvey (left) brought down the house Tuesday night with her original song “Try” — earning Simon Cowell’s “golden buzzer” bye into the live shows as a result — no one could have anticipated that Lady Gaga would tweet later that night how much she enjoyed Harvey’s performance. “I love Mandy,” Gaga tweeted to her 66.9 million followers, under her Twitter handle xoxo, Gaga (@LadyGaga) — which is some endorsement.

“I’ve done this a long time,” Cowell said. “That was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen, and heard.”

AGT is a summer-long marathon, of course. It doesn’t make or break a season based on a single act. Its sheer breadth of entertainment — from illusionists to daredevil high-wire routines to dance crews — means that almost anything is possible.

Yes, it’s slickly edited and manipulative to a fault. There’s always the sneaking suspicion that a sudden, overnight “find” was vetted in advance. There are sad back stories, often accompanied by sad music, designed to push the audience’s buttons. 

The most memorable acts are often those that look at first glance to be a waste of time — a sad-sack sad clown who calls himself Puddles Pity Party and warbles his way through Sia’s “Chandelier” surprisingly well; a 12-year-old singing ventriloquist named Darci Lynne Farmer who seems nervous and scared at first, then wows the crowd and wins a golden buzzer from judge Mel B; chemistry aficionado and YouTube video artist Nick Uhas (below) who, shades of Walter White, cooks up a mean concoction of chemical explosives and nearly blows judge Howie Mandel to smithereens; Sherlock Holmes-inspired mind reader and real-life psychological profiler Colin Cloud who reads Howie Mandel’s mind; Las Vegas trapeze artist Jimmy Slonina, who uses a blow-up doll in his trapeze act, which is just as weird and creepy and yet oddly compelling as it sounds, and so on.

What jumps out more than anything, though, is an overall spirit of joie de vivre and a genuine affection for even the loopiest acts. The cast-a-wide-net audition process ensures that some truly awful acts will make it onto the stage, but the editing in this season’s AGT auditions shows has consigned the most hopeless acts to quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em montages. There’s no dwelling on humiliation here; that’s reserved for lesser, less forgiving reality shows.

It’s hard to escape the current state of American politics of course, even on a talent competition show with toy poodles that can count to 50 and East European body builders who show off their self-harming torture stunts.

In AGT’s May 30 season premiere, a Donald Trump impersonator walked out to a chorus of boos (“We’re going to make America’s Got Talent great again; it’s going to be yuge”) and then — and I am not making this up — launched into a credible rendition of a pair of Bruno Mars’ hits, including “Uptown Funk,” complete with back-splitting dance moves, wig waving precariously, red tie flapping all over the stage (“Let’s go funk you up!”). He ended by admonishing the audience, now cheering wildly, with a veiled threat: “Folks, if I don’t make it through to the next round, then this thing is rigged.”

He made it through to the next round.

And, not for the first time, it was easy to walk away from AGT feeling good. Really good.

America’s Got Talent has always been entertaining. This summer, though, in a year of increasingly dark and depressing news events, it may prove to be the cure for what ails you. If only temporarily.

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Watching One Love Manchester, the sheer energy (and hormones) of the audience could have powered that city, and London, too for days. Flawless.
Couldn't help but notice Ms.Grande's difficulty separating herself from her fans at the end, as if the support she felt would suddenly diminish and reality return.
Only 23, she is a remarkable young woman that we can hope to see for decades.
Jun 13, 2017   |  Reply
Mark Isenberg
Everyone with a heart should watch a version of the One Love Manchester concert with such a range of local and regular pop stars and taped messages of support from King Sir Paul and even Stevie Wonder. Just amazing musicianship and unity.
Jun 9, 2017   |  Reply
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