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America’s Got Talent Recap: Week 5 – Chicago and San Antonio

agt1 Let’s get this out of the way up top: this is the first time I have ever watched America’s Got Talent. Prior to this episode, my most significant interaction with this ratings juggernaut was walking by an AGT billboard every morning at my former internship.

Now that I’ve Hulu Plus’d my way through 90 minutes of our nation’s favorite variety show, I can see why this thing is so popular. This is the show for those people at Oscar parties who won’t stop talking until something extraordinary happens. It could not be easier to tune in and out of the proceedings, and the episode is even constructed with hashtag bookmarks for handy reference. Pay attention to the stuff you like, but feel free to mess around on your phone with no penalty.

Week Five mostly centers on Chicago with a few highlights from San Antonio at the end. Host Nick Cannon, wearing a purple Willy Wonka suit, warms up the crowd with my brand-new favorite phrase: “Make some Illinoise!” Then hosts Mel B, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Howard Stern take their seats, and it’s off to the races.

As contestant after contestant took to the stage, the hosts struck me as overly diplomatic. Granted, there are probably dozens of performers turned away in disgrace every night who don’t make the televised cut, but I kept asking myself why acceptable yet unremarkable acts were allowed to progress in the competition.

Early on, a juggler named David Ferman risks his very life with a molotov cocktail trick. He takes a glass bottle filled with gasoline, sticks a candle in it, lights it on fire, then balances it on a balloon that is balanced on a stick that he’s holding in his mouth. Got all that? Because then HE POPS THE BALLOON and catches the flaming bottle of gasoline on the stick.

That is an almost superhuman level of ability. Ferman has not only mastered the stunt, but he’s a grade A showman, tantalizing the audience with danger and peril. The man sets a high bar that leaves groups like the wrestling sideshow circus coughing in the dust.

agt2But even beyond obvious duds like the wedding-themed comedian who refuses to skulk off the stage, there are acts that fall into an awkward gray area. Two ten year-old girls – one rapper, one DJ – mash-up Run DMC and the Black Eyed Peas. They’re not bad; maybe after they’ve been working together for more than three months (their acknowledged time-table), they’ll produce something really special. But since they’re brave children with enough talent not to screw up in front of a huge crowd, they get the thumbs up from the judges.

Here’s the problem with this set-up: the judges either don’t convey or aren’t given the freedom to express any degree of nuance. Acts are good or bad, when there should also be a distinction between good and great. If the winners weren’t crowned until the end of the episode, Heidi Klum wouldn’t have to break a kid’s heart right after he revealed his soul under the bright lights. Only the best of the best would be advancing instead of every single performer who didn’t completely humiliate himself.

Of course, if an America’s Got Talent episode had a conclusion that tied together threads from the entire show, that would alienate the folks who only caught the last twenty minutes. In our fifteen-seconds-of-fame culture, it’s only important what’s happening now.

As long as it fits into a Tweet.

BONUS THOUGHTS

The AGT editors win a prize for turning Trevor Stone into the episode’s most entertaining loser. Stone is introduced as a cat trainer, and we see backstage pictures of him with a lazy feline. When he strolls onstage, we’re expecting to see him make a kitty dance or something. Instead, a GIGANTIC costumed cat marches out, coughs up a hairball the size of a soccer ball, raises its tail and produces… the camera cuts away here, but soon, Nick Cannon tosses the brown gift at a terrified Howie Mandel. The hilarious reversal of audience expectations along with Stone’s brilliantly stupid act mark this as a supreme highlight.

Mel B and Heidi Klum embarrass themselves by openly drooling over a group of prodigiously muscled dancers dressed as Spartan warriors. Yes, they’re ultra-manly men, but maybe share a thought or two about their performance? I guess this footage counterbalances the constant stream of flirts from the male judges.

The show delves into sentimentality a few times: the Chicago Boyz, an acrobatic team of troubled inner city kids (at one point, they use a 9 year-old as a jump rope!); Brandon James, an opera singer whose homosexuality has created a barrier between him and his parents; and the American Hitmen, a rock band composed of former Marines (including two brothers). The interviews here become a little cloying, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t touched when Howie Mandel found James’s mother in the audience and told her how proud she should be of her son.

America’s Got Talent airs on Tuesdays 8/9 Central on NBC.

Season 8, Episode 5: Chicago and San Antonio (original air date 7/2/2013)

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