Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Vaguely Disappointing Talent

There was something vaguely off about the season debut of America's Got Talent on Tuesday night, but I'm at a loss to explain why I feel that way. Maybe it was a combination of things, but put them all together and the result was not as much fun as the debut of the show's first season.

Now don't get me wrong the show was still quite enjoyable but it didn't sparkle the way that it did in the first season. Then, I was a jaded viewer fully expecting another dull American Idol clone courtesy of Simon Cowell, with the complete formula – a snarky Brit, a ditzy judge, and an industry pro, auditions in which you truly awful performers to ridicule as well as ones with ability – in which the big difference was that the ditz was David Hasselhoff and the host wasn't a Ryan Seacrest clone but Regis Philbin. I was expecting to hate it but somewhere in the first episode that I saw (I missed the LA auditions because I basically wasn't interested), and I don't honestly know if it was the guy who balanced a motorcycle on his face, the "Snow White stripper" (Michelle L'amour) that the PTC loathed, or Leonid The Magnificent in his wings, but they had me hooked.

There were some important cast changes between the first and second season. Brandy – the industry pro in my view, famous for giving all three "X"es to Michelle L'amour and having to fight Hasselhoff and Morgan to do it – withdrew as a judge largely due to her legal problems related to the charge of involuntary vehicular manslaughter (and the $50 million wrongful death suit filed against her). She has been replaced with Sharon Osbourne who really is an industry pro. I can't imagine her fighting to "X" a "Snow White stripper; on the other hand I can't imagine Hasselhoff and Morgan giving her as much trouble as they did Brandy if she did want to do it. The other big replacement was that Regis left the show and was replaced by Jerry Springer. Springer is clearly continuing the effort to rehabilitate his image that began with Dancing With The Stars. The problem is that Jerry doesn't have the sort of frenetic energy that Regis brings to just about anything. Everything seems to be ratcheted down just a bit.

I didn't feel the same way on Tuesday night. Last year I wrote "There were great acts, awful acts, and then there are the truly bizarre." This year, with the first auditions taking place in Dallas, there didn't seem to be as much of the "totally bizarre" as there was last year. Oh there were some odd acts but there also seemed to be an emphasis on the bad acts. One of the worst was an overweight Elvis impersonator (who looked fatter than "fat" Elvis) who was simultaneously "X"ed before he even opened his mouth to introduce himself. Even Piers Morgan (the snarky British judge) realised that this was unfair so they took back their "X"es and let him sing...two words. There were a host of bad Bianca Ryan imitators (she won the first season of America's Got Talent) including one who was shown and was singing the same song that Bianca sang "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" (which was also sung by former American Idol contestant and Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls). This kid was no Bianca. Another kid thought he was a ventriloquist. Piers asked him if he practiced a lot. The kid said he really didn't need to – he was so wrong.

There was controversy when another act came out. She was a nine year-old doing what was described as a "full cheerleading routine", and to be honest she and/or it weren't that good. More to the point we kept getting shots of Jerry and the girl's mom and by her head movements the woman was going through the entire routine with her daughter. Piers was harsh in his critique and openly suggested that she was only there because her mother was a stage mother. Meanwhile Sharon was steaming. Then Jerry brought the mother out and Piers started cross-examining her. At which point Sharon got up from the judges table, said she'd had enough and walked back to her dressing room vowing that she was quitting. You could tell she was serious too, because she pulled off her artificial eyelashes as she was walking. Piers walked almost immediately thereafter, either because he thought they were taking a break or to apologize to Sharon or what. Meanwhile the kid, her mother, and Jerry were left staring at Hasselhoff, who was probably wishing he had a bottle of booze and a cheeseburger right at that moment. Eventually Piers apologized to Sharon and the two of them were informed that the kid (and her mother and Jerry) were still on stage. They came back and Piers apologized but they all told her no.

There were a few bizarre acts. There was an aerialist who used long fabric sheets rather than ropes. He was actually quite good no matter what the judges felt. There was also acts like a guy who works in four large tubes put together like a four legged spider whose act involved extending and retracting various tubes. The judges liked it but basically thought it was an act for kids. Then there was the guy who sounded a lot like Barry White. Sang like him too when he did "Don't You Wish Your Boyfriend Was Hot Like Me?" Unfortunately he opted to do it topless except for a collar tie and hat and believe me when I say that this is one time when I wish the FCC had rules on exposing male nipples. And speaking of male nipples some mention has to be made of the two brothers who flexed their pecs to "Duelling Banjos" – some, but not much.

There were more than a few good acts. There was a singer named Fallon who accompanied herself on the guitar. Her guitar playing wasn't great but her voice more than made up for it. There were three girls reminiscent of The Supremes, and Jabberwockee, a group of break dancers who performed wearing expressionless white face masks. The Duttons, a multi-generational family group from Branson Missouri started with six adults and suddenly ballooned when half a dozen kids came out. Piers gave them an "X" because of the kids – his feeling was that despite playing instruments the kids added nothing to the act. I'm inclined to agree; several of the kids seemed only to be going through the motions of playing their instruments.

For a long time I was divided on what my favourite acts were. Fallon was on the list, but so was a young woman ventriloquist who, with her two puppets, sang "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (and believe it or not Word did not mark that as spelled wrong!). Piers thought it was an act for kids but this young woman was dead on in how she sang the parts in terms of getting the voices right and the rotation. An act that I loved and felt sorry for was Mr. Bill, a Las Vegas school bus driver with an amazing tenor or baritone voice. He sang "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound Of Music and almost from the beginning the crowd was booing him for reasons passing all of my understanding. Piers hit his "X" but then, Mr. Bill amazed him by stepping up the quality of his performance. The booing grew less intense and some people actually started cheering in response to the boos. After Mr. Bill finished his performance, Piers apologized for hitting his button so soon. None of the judges voted for him to continue though, and I'm convinced that Mr. Bill was betrayed by his material. If he had sung an operatic aria, for example "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot, I'm convinced that people would have taken notice of him.

The final act of the night became my favourite and may be enough to convince me that this show is still almost as good as it was last year. He was Andrew Beal aka Mr. Big "Who's the Guy" Beal. Coming out he looked like a nerdy guy with a sax, and people were giving an "oh good grief" look. But then he started to play and to dance around, combining hip-hop popping moves with incredible sax playing which completely won the audience and the judges over. It was an amazing performance and has to be seen as one of the frontrunners when the series shifts to the semi-final rounds in Las Vegas.

Even though I thought, based on the first episode, that America's Got Talent had slipped a bit I still consider it to be a terrific show in the great tradition of Vaudeville and Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour. And it's not just an American phenomenon any more. According to Wikipedia – and the show's own introductory sequence – there are versions of the show in at least nine different countries including Australia, Britain, and Greece. This is yet another show, like Dancing With The Stars, that a Canadian television could do very well with if they were willing to spend the money to license the concept and run with it. CTV has done phenomenally well with Canadian Idol but as yet no one take a chance with these other shows.

Finally, here's a YouTube clip of Andrew Beal.

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