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Review: 'America's Got Talent' doesn't have Boyle, but it does have that something compelling

June 24, 2009 |  7:35 pm

NBC's "America's Got Talent" returned for its fourth season Tuesday night, the first since Susan Boyle made its cousin "Britain's Got Talent" an international Internet sensation. Coincidentally, Ed McMahon died that morning — from 1983 to 1995, he was the host of "Star Search," which preceded "AGT" in the great chain of talent shows, and itself followed "The Amateur Hour," manned under slightly varying titles by Major Edward Bowes or Ted Mack on radio and television from 1934 through 1970 (with a slight return, hosted by Willard Scott, in 1991). Rapper-comic Nick Cannon, the new "AGT" host, following Regis Philbin and Jerry Springer, nudges things along with mutterings and raised eyebrows; he is not particularly funny, but he is mostly rather sweet.

Unlike "American Idol," whose Simon Cowell is the "creator" of this patented and internationally franchised inflation of something that has been going on in community centers, high school auditoriums and church basements for ages, "AGT" defines talent as broadly as possible and welcomes, if often only to smack them down, performers of all shapes and ages: It likes the very young (children are always asked their ages, usually by judge Sharon Osbourne), the up-from-the-streets, the family band, the dream that won't die — contestants are a mix of karaoke singers, hobbyists looking to take it to the next level, frustrated professionals seeking a larger venue and people who just need you to see that thing they do. It is a kind of human "Antiques Roadshow," in which talents and desires are brought out from the attic for expert appraisal and possible reward. Not everyone likes what they hear.

On Tuesday's show, which covered auditions in New York City, Seattle and Chicago, we saw a man put sharp things up his nose, a man rotate his feet 180 degrees (even more unsettling than the man with the things up his nose), a couple twirl erotically on a hoop and a man sing satirically about being in love with judge David Hasselhoff — songwriting was his avowed talent, not singing — alongside the more usual singers, comics, choirs and dance crews. Many are allowed on stage specifically to fail.

These shows run on a sort of cognitive dissonance. The point of the Boyle phenomenon is not her singing but that her singing was unexpected, given the drably dressed, thick-set middle-aged person from which it issued: She represents the ultimate expression of the "Got Talent" brand. Last year's "AGT" winner, Neal E. Boyd, was similarly an unlikely star, a very large insurance salesman from a small town in the Midwest with a thing for opera. (His debut album was released Tuesday to coincide with the start of the new season.) First "AGT" winner Bianca Ryan was a big-voiced 11-year-old who sang Janis Joplin. But although judge Piers Morgan took pains Tuesday to tell a trio of youngsters that they were being judged on their (excellent) singing and not their backstory, their backstory was nevertheless teased out and put on display: They had begun singing when their mother lay in a hospital in a coma, in order to reach her; she was brought in a wheelchair (by apparently spontaneous audience demand) out to close the show on an inspirational note.

Like "American Idol," "America's Got Talent" also embraces a narrative of amateurism triumphant. That last season's "Idol" runner-up, Adam Lambert, already had a relatively hale career was not exactly a secret, but it fought uncomfortably with the idea that these shows are venues in which raw talent is "discovered" and groomed, and finally let out into the world as a butterfly leaves its chrysalis.

I like this show even as I am sometimes put off by the aggressiveness of its uplift on the one hand and the occasional nastiness of the judges on the other — and by crowds encouraged to boo and fold their arms X-style to indicate displeasure. It is hard not to like the show, if you give it any time — something will come along to impress you or tug at your heart. For me, it was the man with the "flying" dog; I was glad to see them make the cut. I was there with them. I was sucked in.

— Robert Lloyd 

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Actually, it was pretty easy to NOT like that awful show.

Ginger K.

Terrific! Wonderful show. It's a tear jerker.

trace morgan

American's Got Talent would be watchable IF they got rid of Nick and his constant slapstick for the camera - and reined in Hasselhoff whose leering and drama queen facial expressions are just too much in a man his age.
If the entire season is going to constant panning to Nick with his juvenile comments - and the Hoff drooling over every female, I won't be watching it. Susan Boyle wouldn't have a chance on AGT - hoff and nick couldn't shut up long enough for her to sing.

Obediah Fults

I love this show but the new host's inane remarks (mumbled in Ebonics) are insulting and not the least bit amusing. Not everyone in the audience is watching on a RAC television in a ghetto project.

If David Hasselhoff declares, just one more time, "what this show's all about" I'm going to run screaming into the night! I'll lace up my running shoes for next week's show because I know he'll say it again.

Former fan

Dump Nick Cannon. He is not funny or interesting and just keeps us from seeing the acts. Very annoying to be subjected to his antics when we are trying to see the performances

Andy Jameson

What WERE they thinking when they put Nick Cannon in as 'host'. Personality of a dead sheep. They need to dump this turkey now or watch the ratings go into freefall.......


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