America's Got Talent

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Myles McNutt looks at the most popular summer series in the country, America's Got Talent.)

At the conclusion of Tuesday night’s America’s Got Talent Quarter-Finals, Denver dance troupe Silhouettes (pictured above) took to the stage. A group of 42 young dancers, ranging from borderline toddler to borderline adult, Silhouettes were the last of twelve performers in the two-hour live show, and the judges (and this reviewer) were growing a bit weary.

What followed, however, was a singularly spectacular reality competition performance. In a combination of large-scale shadow puppetry and generic contemporary dance moves, the gaggle of smiling youths delivered a performance dedicated to those who have served for the U.S. Armed Forces set to “God Bless America.” They recreated various historical American landmarks (including the Capitol and Mount Rushmore), they raised the flag Iwo Jima-style, and they spelled out the word America. Then, however, they created something I didn’t recognize. It was a bunch of rectangular shapes, many low to the ground, unrecognizable as any particular piece of American iconography. But then, the white background turned into an image of the New York City skyline, and the World Trade Center towers were digitally returned to their former location as “God Bless America” began its rousing conclusion.

When the routine (posted above) came to a close the crowd was already on their feet, and the judges joined them (even Piers Morgan, who isn’t even American...well, neither are the other judges, but more on that later). The dancers, meanwhile, were in tears themselves as they stood together on the stage basking in the aura of this wonderful reception.

Meanwhile, I was on my couch laughing hysterically. When I suggest that this was a singularly spectacular performance, I mean that purely from the perspective of reality competition gamesmanship (although, to clarify, it was also a well-executed bit of shadow choreography). It was everything you could ask for: It involved small children, it involved patriotism, and it involved a national tragedy that only conspiracy theorists are comfortable admitting to finding anything but empowering and inspirational. Choreographer Lynne Patton is a true artiste of reality competition pandering, her only mistake being that she didn’t save this for when they make the finale — how, precisely, does one top something so shrewdly manipulative in subsequent rounds?

America’s Got Talent is the highest rated show of the summer by an incredible margin, but it has never quite taken its place in the cultural pantheon like American Idol. While the franchise has had considerable success worldwide, where Susan Boyle’s memorable audition for Britian’s Got Talent won over the world back in 2009, the American version (which actually debuted first, despite being initially created for the UK) has spawned very little of cultural relevance: while David Foster has groomed last year’s runner-up Jackie Evancho into a Charlotte Church-esque figure (with some pretty successful album sales this past holiday season), the show has turned out a pretty unmemorable set of winners.

Of course, part of this is by design. While American Idol seeks to create national stars, America’s Got Talent is more interested in creating regional treasures. While a million dollars is part of the grand prize, the other half is more interesting and more directly informs the show’s aims. The show’s decision to award its winner a headlining show in Las Vegas is mostly due to the diverse range of performers welcome on the show: Tuesday’s episode featured a motorcycle stunt show, four singers or groups of singers, two dance troupes, a male pole dancer, a comedian, a magician (or, more accurately, an illusionist), a juggler, and a “Wild West Showman.” With this much diversity, a slot in Las Vegas is really the only possible prize of any cultural value that could be meaningful for all of the contestants involved.

However, there are two problems with this. The first is that AGT has, over time, turned the “Headlining Show in Las Vegas” into “Headlining a month-long tour featuring contestants from this season of America’s Got Talent that happens to stop in Las Vegas,” which is somewhat less prestigious. Secondly, and this is related to the first issue, the vast majority of these contestants are ill suited to performing a headlining show in Las Vegas. While the show presents this as something that everyone aspires to, the kind of people that the show and its judges gravitate towards are very rarely the kind of people who are capable of living the dream placed before them.

The one major exception to date was Terry Fator, an impressionist/ventriloquist/singer who won the show’s second season and has since gone on to book a long-term deal with The Mirage. My parents, who are the only people I know that watch the show (and they aren’t even American), noted at the time that he was the kind of performer they would be willing to see in Las Vegas: He was a diverse act (with various different puppets who all have their own voices/musical signatures), he had broad generational appeal, and it was the kind of performance you weren’t going to see in your own city. Even if Fator isn’t your taste (he isn’t mine), he felt like a Las Vegas performer, and his success would indicate that this was the case.

However, the vast majority of this week’s contestants would never make it in Las Vegas, although the illusionist, Landon Swank, is one exception. He’s already in Vegas trying to make a name for himself with an inspired but small-scale repertoire, a repertoire that he’s finding doesn’t quite cut it in the “entertainment capital of the world.” A handsome Alaskan with an attractive model-esque fiancé (who doubles as his assistant), Swank is someone for whom this competition is a tremendous opportunity to achieve something that would actually be a lifelong dream and a major step forward in his career at the young age of 26.

It’s also a competition that he has no chance of winning. Swank is charming but uncharismatic, lacking the spark of a Copperfield or the creepiness of a Blaine, which would be necessary in order to compete against those who dream of inspiring the world through song or dance. If you are a journeyman variety performer over the age of eighteen but under the age of 50 whose work fits comfortably into a pre-existing niche and who doesn’t have a particularly inspiring back story, you are going to struggle to win America’s hearts and votes on America’s Got Talent. I realize that sounds hyper-specific, but it actually describes most people who actually dream of headlining a show in Las Vegas.

Fator is the only variety act that has won the competition, with the other four winners all singers of various backgrounds, and even Fator earns an asterisk given that singing is a prominent component of his act. While there are plenty of singers headlining shows in Las Vegas, they aren’t just any singers: they’re established artists, often long-established artists, who draw in tourists looking for a bit of Vegas spectacle. The singers competing this week, while perhaps not representative of the show’s past winners, are never going to be established artists. The judges insisted that many of them are stars, but they also acknowledged that none of them delivered a performance worthy of the prize being offered, whether that prize is a headlining gig or a million dollars.

However, these are the kinds of contestants that the judges (and the producers) are drawn to, individuals who are chasing a dream and that the audience can relate to. Dani Shay, a young woman who bizarrely chose to pair her Justin Bieber haircut with Justin Bieber’s wardrobe, even messed up her Las Vegas audition for the judges before being given a second chance during the Quarter-Final round (thus proving that you can fail upwards on this show). She didn’t do a particularly good job with David Gray’s “Babylon” either, but the judges rationalized their dissatisfaction as disappointment: Howie Mandel thought the song wasn’t recognizable enough to connect with audiences (read: it was a poor song choice), Piers Morgan thought she was off-key because the song was too difficult (read: she wasn’t capable of singing it), and Sharon thought that she was wonderful but said it in a way that made it clear she thought it was less wonderful than the performances she actually thought were wonderful.

I understand why the show gravitates towards young singers like Shay, Dylan Andre (a bland 19-year old singer/songwriter type who murdered John Mayer’s “Daughters”), and Daniel Joseph Baker (an enthusiastic piano man who got swept up by the pace of Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” and his insistence on believing that constantly saying ‘fierce’ is anything but tiring): Young people aspiring to stardom is the YouTube Era’s American Dream, after all. The problem, however, is that none of these people can actually sing, or at least sing in a way that distinguishes them in any way. They’re all generic, decent vocalists who are not good enough to carry the narrative the show is asking them to carry. I have heard this was a particularly weak night for the show, but it doesn’t change the fact that these people are incapable of offering the spectacle that the show purports to be searching for.

It makes me want to put on my “Reality Competition Regulator” hat and do some rearranging. When I watch America’s Got Talent, I can’t help but feel that there are other outlets where many of these competitors would be more at home. The dance crews have America’s Best Dance Crew, for example, while the singers have an enormous number of other options. With both The Voice and Fox’s upcoming The X Factor featuring broader age limits and embracing duos (and, in the case of The X Factor, groups) this year, the vast majority of singers in this competition have other options that are designed to showcase their specific talent.

It makes me wish, perhaps naively, that America’s Got Talent would embrace its contribution to the reality landscape and become a show about purely variety acts. Mind you, they were not that much more consistent: the Rhinestone Ropers disappointed with an enormously dull horse act (which was allegedly pared down due to issues with the horse performing under the stage lights), while juggler Thomas John dropped his pins bowling twice and failed to translate his sense of humor to the Quarter-Final stage. However, where else are a “Wild West Showman” or a “Juggler/PhD student” going to be judged by America? And where else are more interesting acts, like Wisconsin’s Smage Bros. Riding Shows, going to get a chance for national exposure and an opportunity to turn a passion into a career? I return to Landon Swank, the young magician trying to make it in a tough business, and wonder why America’s Got Talent can’t be a show that focuses on giving people like him a shot at achieving their dreams, as specific it may be compared to the broad narrative that viewers apparently demand.

When it came down to tonight’s results, they got the no-brainer out of the way first: Silhouettes went through with what we presume was the largest number of votes, sailing into the semi-finals. After that, though, America resisted the siren’s song of the young singers: Only Daniel Joseph Baker, the showiest of the singing acts, made it through while the rest faltered. Stephen Retchless, the male pole dancer, also made his way into the semi-finals, leaving one last judges’ choice slot for the fourth and fifth-place competitors. Surprisingly, those two acts proved to be variety acts, with the motorcycle acrobatics of the Smage Bros. Riding Show against Landson Swank and his Vegas dream.

In the end, Howie Mandel chose the death-defying excitement of the Smage Bros. over the more subtle illusionist, ending a lifelong dream but simultaneously catapulting some Wisconsin kids risking their lives on motorcycles into the semi-finals to performance for a national audience yet again. On the one hand, I was pleased that two of the top five acts were unquestionably variety acts, and that the two dance acts which went through would be out of place on pre-existing dance shows. However, on the other hand, I look to Swank as the kind of person that this show actually meant something other than “inspiring America,” who might have been able to grow throughout the competition and get an opportunity to make a living doing what he loves (which isn’t the easiest thing to do when the thing you love is magic).

During tonight’s results show, Mandel gave a little speech where he said that he never disagrees with America: They always get it right, in his mind. At first I was sort of skeptical, but then I realized that this show doesn’t exist to find the best of anything. It’s just a popularity contest, and any objective evaluation is left to Piers, the irascible Brit. Mandel actually gives some remarkably cogent advice, even suggesting to Retchless that he might want to tone down the audaciousness of his act for Middle America in subsequent weeks, so it’s not as though the entire panel exists solely to praise the contestants. However, the show resists any effort to guide America’s opinion in one direction or another, which is perhaps why they don’t limit the contestant pool in any way: The American Dream, after all, should be open to everyone no matter what their talent might be.

The results show was sponsored by Orville Redenbacher's popcorn, with the new pop-up bags a big hit at a clearly staged post-show party. Just like Silhouettes delivered the perfect reality competition performance, this is an incredibly smart bit of product placement. The best (and perhaps only) way to watch America’s Got Talent is to sit back with a bag of popcorn and enjoy the ride, accepting that the judges put through numerous mediocre acts and acknowledging that America will probably end up picking another singer no matter how strong the variety acts might be. On this night, still very early in the competition, the variety acts made a strong stand against a weak batch of singers, but history suggests that this is far from the norm. The singers will likely bounce back next week, continuing a constant battle between the acts that “entertain” and the acts that “inspire,” with the ones that manage to do both too rare to make the show entertaining week in and week out.

America’s Got Talent, at least at this stage in the competition, is not an unpleasant show. While the auditions feature more public embarrassment than I can handle, at this point there’s a handful of acts that do differ from anything else you see on television, and the judges are harmless and even occasionally a bit charming (even if it’s an immature sort of charming, what with the water gun fights). When you watch it, you entirely understand why it’s successful even if the other side of your brain is listing out the ways the show could be improved. Yes, if I had control of the show, I’d dump the pop singers and stick to more marginal musical genres (Opera/Classical would count) not represented elsewhere, and feature only dancers who are doing things that couldn’t fit in on other programs. That would leave room for more magicians, more stunt shows, and more of the variety acts that even the judges say is what truly makes the show special. If America’s Got Talent became that show, I might be more likely to set my DVR and flip through to see if they’ve discovered something truly unique, a singular talent that America has indeed “got.”

As it stands, I’m content taking the show’s word for it and moving on.

Stray Observations

  • Building on an earlier observation, they are aware that *none* of their judges are American, right? Mind you, I think the show is better off (from my limited experience) with Mandel over the much less coherent David Hasselhoff, but it still seems odd when you think about it.
  • Nick Cannon is our host, and I’ll admit it: I didn’t entirely hate him. Mind you, the banter with Piers felt like a failed attempt at recreating a Cowell/Seacrest dynamic and got old quickly, but compared to Carson Daly on The Voice I’d argue that Cannon does a decent job of seeming genuinely enthusiastic, which is at least half the battle.
  • I’m curious if the success of The Voice might maybe push them towards fewer singers on AGT, or whether they might see the show as a logical extension of The Voice’s focus on singing, and see it as a chance to build on next Winter’s Voice run with the debut of AGT. I’d obviously choose the former, but the latter route seems more likely.
  • Not willing to pick a side in the singer/variety binary, tonight’s results show featured both a musical performance and a variety performance. The former, Hot Chelle Ray’s “Tonight Tonight,” was clearly aimed at younger audiences (to keep them entertained), while “urban acrobat troupe” Traces was more aimed at their parents (who might spend some money to see them in New York later this summer).
  • You know, I wonder how middle America feels about Howie basically calling them out as resistant to anything associated with homosexuality, especially given that both the “fierce” — his catchphrase, not my description — Daniel Joseph Baker and the male pole dancer made it through to the semi-finals based on their votes.
  • It's such an odd situation that the three judges all have gigs on other networks (Morgan on CNN, Osbourne on CBS, and Mandel on Fox).
  • Seriously, though, where does Silhouettes go from here? My only thought: Dancing to Sarah McLachlan and making cute animals that turn into neglected animals.

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