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In ‘America’s Got Talent’ We Trust: How Summer’s Silliest Show Became a Much-Needed Balm for an Ailing Nation
June 19, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

America’s Got Talent shows up in the darnedest places. Not just small-town America, either, but in nooks and crannies around the world, in countries like the UK, which has its own Britain’s Got Talent, and in unlikely places like the UK Guardian newspaper’s news pages.

A cartoon earlier this month by the respected Guardian sports cartoonist David Squires noted that Americans are anxious over the state of the world in general, and about the prospect of Donald Trump’s winning the White House in the particular. 

Squires’ cartoon pictured Mr. Trump in the future; delivering a foreign-policy announcement to the Pentagon, top generals at his side.

“OK, today I want you to obliterate all of the countries beginning with the letter N,” the future President Trump is depicted as saying. “Nigeria, Nova Scotia, Naboo, all of ‘em. I hate that dumb letter.”

“Don’t look at me,” one general says to another. “I voted for the singing crab on America’s Got Talent.”

Yes! Bring on the singing crab!

A singing crab has yet to make an appearance on this, the 11th and arguably the most entertaining of AGT’s seasons so far.

There has, however, been a singing chihuahua, which howled so far off-key that show producer and parachuted-in head judge Simon Cowell grabbed his head in pain and flashed back to the heydays of American Idol, when William Hung made America proud.

"That would be a no," Cowell said, or words to that effect. Think more acerbic, less polite, and you get the picture.

America’s Got Talent is now a summer ritual on U.S. TV — and in the UK, apparently — with more than 10 million viewers tuning in each week to see the parade of agoraphobic plate spinners, hearing-impaired ventriloquists, six-year-old standup comedians, 60-year-old high-wire artists, tap-dancing gauchos and muscle-bound strongmen who toss AGT judge Heidi Klum around like some baton at a cheerleader rally during high-school homecoming week.

This season feels different, though. And not just because Cowell is back on U.S. TV — back where he belongs, he would have you know. And not because last week’s ratings tipped just south of 12 million viewers, 20 percent above last summer’s average.

No, this time feels different because there have been some genuinely eye-opening performances that have gone beyond the aw-shucks feel-good factor that makes AGT so much darn fun to watch.

Media pundits, the show’s fans, even the judges themselves are fond of saying that what separates AGT from other reality-TV competition shows is the unknown, the element of surprise, the idea that anything can happen, that the act you think is going to be excruciating turns out to be something special. They’ve said it so often that it’s become a cliché.

The surprise this time, though, is that America’s Got Talent has taken on a deeper meaning.

Last Tuesday’s broadcast followed on the heels of a truly terrible weekend — YouTube sensation and former Voice contestant Christina Grimmie gunned down after a concert performance, followed less than 24 hours later by the killing of 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

On one level America’s Got Talent is an escape; silly, trivial entertainment that, at its best, charms and entertains and, at its worst, still manages to elicit giggles. More than anything, though, it’s infused with an almost infectious joy. It might just be the most uplifting, life-affirming, genuinely positive reality show on television today.

It’s tempting to read too much into a dramatic ratings bump in just one week, but of the 12 million viewers who tuned in to see AGT last week — this is June, remember, when most people would rather be outside, enjoying the longer daylight hours and the cool breeze of an early summer’s evening — it’s hard to imagine a single one of those viewers not walking away without having laughed even once, or felt a warm glow of affection during one of the show’s pleasant surprises.

It’s just three weeks into America’s Got Talent’s new season, and yet this summer it feels more needed, more spiritually uplifting than it ever has.

This season’s eventual winner is unlikely to be granted a special performance in front of President Obama, unlike this season’s winner of Britain’s Got Talent, who will perform in front of Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety Performance “on the occasion of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday celebration.” (This is true, by the way, not some empty promotional gimmick by host network ITV, or an empty Trump campaign promise.)

And yet, of every show to air on broadcast television this past week, it’s hard to imagine a program that more effectively took the audience’s mind off real-world troubles, that provided an escape, if only for a moment.

America’s Got Talent was always going to be a silly summer diversion. We knew that going in.

What’s different this time is how a little summer silliness has suddenly become important. Meaningful, even.

It was hard not to feel the charm of a child stand-up comedian, Nathan Bockstahler (above, left), of Carlsbad, CA, who told a standing-room-only crowd at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, “I’m six-years-old, which is possibly seven, which is basically eight,” followed by Cowell’s asking him, with a straight face: “Are you married?”

It was hard not to feel the infectious joy of preternaturally talented 12-year-old would-be folk singer, Grace VanderWaal (right), of Suffern, New York, who sang an original song while strumming a ukulele, a performance that earned her a bye into the live shows — AGT’s so-called “golden buzzer” — thanks to show veteran Howie Mandel.

As of this past week, VanderWaal’s AGT audition performance has racked up more than 15 million views on YouTube. America’s Got Talent’s YouTube channel now has nearly three million subscribers.

VanderWaal isn’t just some cute child act who momentarily shone in the TV spotlight, either. Her performance earned her an interview with Rolling Stone, where she talked Katy Perry and staying true to one’s musical roots, among other highfalutin’ adult matters.

Then there was last week’s show-closing — and show-stopping — moment when “Sal the Voice,” Long Island, New York pizza delivery crooner Sal Valentinetti (below), lit into Frank Sinatra’s My Way as if Frank had somehow returned from the dead, disguised as a Long Island pizza delivery guy who’d put on a few pounds and dyed his hair Sicilian black.

There was no doubting those pipes, though. Valentinetti’s delivery was old-school all the way.

Afterwards, the Long Island crooner stood surrounded by his extended family, looking like something out of the supporting cast of The Sopranos, complete with rolled cigars and Sicilian bling. Valentinetti was savvy enough to play his Sopranos look for all it was worth.

“I was shakin’ like you wouldn’t believe,” he told reporters backstage, after his AGT performance earned him a golden buzzer pass into the live shows, courtesy of Heidi Klum. “I was shakin’ like the FBI was questioning me.”

Network promos suggest that this is the week Cowell will use his golden buzzer — this, after he said on-the-air that they’ve found the next Taylor Swift in VanderWaal, and wished he’d pressed his golden buzzer before Mandel beat him to it.

It wouldn’t be the first time Cowell was wrong, of course. Following Taylor Swift is a tall order. A lot can happen between now and when the season ends, let alone when VanderWaal turns 26.

It doesn’t matter, though. The fact is that America’s Got Talent is the most irrepressible, warmly inviting and irresistible program on TV at the moment, a wild ’n’ wacky cavalcade of strange delights and summer charms. It couldn’t have come along at a more needed time.

Bring on the singing crab.

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I don't normally watch AGT or The Voice. Except I did watch The Voice two seasons ago and would have this year, too except for demands that kept me away from the TV.

I'm going to go check YouTube for AGT now because this is exactly what I need right now, I just didn't know it until you reminded me. Cheers!
Jun 19, 2016   |  Reply
Alex S.
We aim to please! (Though don't always succeed.) Enjoy the acts. This year seems quite special. And remember, tonight Simon presses his golden buzzer (so to speak).
Jun 21, 2016
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