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‘America’s Got Talent’: A TV Tonic for Troubled Times, Family TV at Its Best
August 25, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

It’s too late to expect Tyra Banks to stop asking America’s Got Talent contestants, “How do you feel?” or its variant, “What are your feelings?” every time a contestant is advanced or eliminated on this wild season of the wildly popular talent show. It’s easier to simply sit back and accept that, like performing cats, daredevil trapeze acts, children’s choruses, bad magic and frenetic dance crews, it’s all part of the show.

For the second summer in a row (13 seasons overall), America’s Got Talent — or AGT, as its followers know it — provides a welcome escape from the depressing news of the day. It’s a stretch to call AGT the most important mass-audience show on TV right now, but there sure are weeks when it feels like it. The sheer joy, the heady optimism, the idea that anyone — even a castoff from the now-canceled Glee hoping to reclaim a singing career cut short before its time — can step into the spotlight and make a living doing what they love, is a heady, life-affirming message for troubled times. Who knew that Simon Cowell (of all people!), Howie Mandel, Mel B, and Heidi Klum would provide a safe haven from the nightly news.

And yet there it is.

Yes, this season of AGT has all the bad habits of past seasons: Too many contestants; the dizzying parade of acts that make it almost impossible to know from one week to the next who’s favored, who’s worth a look, and who’s destined to be an also-ran; some truly odd voting decisions now that the weekly performance shows have been handed over to the audience watching at home; and the predictable wordplay between judges (Simon is now the nice one and Howie the mean one, a look that doesn’t quite fit a media figure who has worked hard over the years to cultivate a career as one of the most affable personalities on TV).

And then there are the old, familiar truisms, true to all talent shows where anything goes — provided it works on TV. Singers have an unnatural advantage with the audience watching at home, even though TV has The Voice. Dance crews have an advantage, even though TV has both World of Dance and the long-running So You Think You Can Dance.

Magic acts, daredevils, illusionists, and escape artists, who must be dazzling, breathtaking even, in person, lose something on TV, even as Mandel goes the extra mile to tell those of us watching at home how dazzling the acts are in person (“You must vote!” he shouts to the audience watching at home, in every show).

Ratings-wise, AGT has found a comfortable rhythm that doesn’t change much from week to week. That in itself is unusual for reality-competition programs. Last week’s performance show scored a chart-topping 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, with 11 million viewers overall — level with the week before.

More importantly, it’s hard to imagine many of those viewers walked away disappointed. We’ve all seen performing dogs — a performing dog act, Olate Dogs, originally from Santiago, Chile even won AGT one year, in 2012 — but performing cats are a whole other kettle of fish. And yet, there they were last week, the Savitsky Cats (right), having clawed their way into the live shows thanks to their minders, the ever-patient (human) mother-daughter duo of Svetlana and Marina.

Sadly, for those who like their entertainment a tad on the wild side, the cats’ dance routine of jumping onto balls, walking backwards on their hind legs, weaving in and out of barriers and performing a conga line on a broom was not enough to advance them to the semi-finals, even if judge Klum did indulge in some truly awful puns of her own in raving about their performance (“You gotta be kitten-me! This could’ve been a cat-astrophe. Wait for it: It was purr-fect. I’m sorry!”). Apology not accepted.

For the record, Glee’s Noah Guthrie, whose singing career hit the skids after Glee ended, did advance to the semi-finals on the strength of his original, hard-rock-edged song Show Me Some Mercy (better than the title suggests), despite mixed notices from the judges.

Cowell, who knows a thing or two about judging singing competitions, asked Guthrie if he wrote the song himself. When told he did, Cowell replied, “Then I’m proud of you for doing that, because it’s so easy to come out here and just do a safe cover sometimes. But you put everything on the line. There’s something about you. Your voice is great, I love your personality. You’re like the comeback kid.”

All true — but — there’s still the inescapable feeling, in my household anyway, that singers don’t really belong on AGT, not when they have The Voice to turn to, and the TV audience at home has been conditioned to vote for singers over other genres of entertainment.

Performing cats, on the other hand . . . that’s not something you see every day.

It would be churlish, though, to get too worked up about who advances on AGT and who doesn’t in the end. The play’s the thing, to borrow from Shakespeare. 

The show must go on, cats or no cats.

One more thing. There was a lovely moment, too, in the Aug. 15 live results show — the first results show of this 30th season of AGT — when last year’s winner, 13-year-old Oklahoma City ventriloquist-singer Darci Lynne Farmer (right), returned to perform her one-person act "Show Off," from her ongoing Darci Lynne and Friends national tour. (The YouTube video of her AGT appearance had 1.2 million views as of this week.)

What was remarkable, and impossible to overlook, was how much she has matured and how much more slick, and polished her act is now, post-AGT. She left AGT an amateur, albeit a talented amateur, and returned to the same stage a year later as a seasoned professional. That’s a side of these TV talent competitions one rarely gets to see: What happens to these performers once the shows end and the cameras are switched off.

AGT has history in this regard. The previous season’s winner, 14-year-old singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal (left), performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this year, not as a gimmicky curiosity act but in the show-closing music-performance showcase, a spot usually reserved for the likes of Beck, Arctic Monkeys, OneRepublic, Death Cab for Cutie, and Florence + The Machine.

VanderWaal performed her single "Clearly," with backing from Colbert’s house band, Jon Batiste & Stay Human.

To say she held her own is understating it — she looked as if she belonged. (The YouTube video, on The Late Show’s official YouTube channel, had 410,000 views, as of last count.)

That’s remarkable, when you think about it, on any number of levels. She left AGT a girl and returned to the Colbert Show as a young woman — watching this it’s not hard to imagine she might be the new Taylor Swift.

Such joy. Such optimism. Such a positive vibe, in these dark times.

On second thought, I take back what I said earlier.

Quite possibly, AGT is the most important mass-audience entertainment program on TV right now.

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George Ashur
"For the second summer in a row (13 seasons overall), America’s Got Talent — or AGT, as its followers know it — provides a welcome escape from the depressing news of the day." -- Why for only the second summer in a row? It's been a hit for years.

"All true — but — there’s still the inescapable feeling, in my household anyway, that singers don’t really belong on AGT" -- Huh? One of the best things about AGT is that it's a variety show, with singers competing against dancers against comedians, etc.
Aug 26, 2018   |  Reply
I've loved AGT since the beginning. I was also very impressed with Darcy Lynn on this past show. And I became a big Grace VanderWaal fan from the moment I saw her. I really hope and pray that she doesn't fall into relying on sex to stay or become more popular. She says that being a good role model is important to her and, so far, she's been doing a good job. But, so did Taylor. It just seems that once they hit their 20s they think they have to turn to provocative dress to stay on top. Think Miley. It takes talent to dress like Grace and stay popular. It's easy to dress like a $lu+. (I literally almost threw up when I saw Nicki Minaj walk up on stage at the VMAs.) What is that teaching our youth?
Aug 25, 2018   |  Reply
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