The Guilty Party

Thursday, August 6, 2009

America's Got Talent

I suppose I should feel fortunate and/or smug about that fact that out of the seemingly hundreds of "reality" contest television programs filling the cable boxes of America, I have only been sucked into two of them. The Next Food Network Star and America's Got Talent are both must-sees in the Hutcheson household. Good thing they both have relatively short seasons and those seasons for the most part do not overlap.

We may talk about the Food Network program in another entry here, although some of what I am about to ponder out loud about AGT applies to both shows. But for now we'll stick with Simon Cowell's successful attempt to capture me when I couldn't be bribed with a Klondike bar to sit through his more famous creation American Idol. And I really like Klondike bars.

Anyway, this post is really just me trying to express a couple of thoughts about the show and in the process work out why in the heck I can't help but watch.

For those of you who are not familiar with America's Got Talent, the basic set-up is very much the same as American Idol, and I've got to assume that most of the English speaking world knows about that show or the British version from which it sprang. Thousands upon thousands of wannabe stars flock to the half a dozen or so massive venues sprinkled around the nation where the first stage of sorting, humiliating and general crashing back down to earth takes place. They don't come out and say it, but my guess is that a small fraction of the people who show up actually make it as far as the theaters where the three judges sit in court along with audiences that are exclusively young, amazingly well dressed (at least if they are going to be within range of the cameras) and vocal past anything seen outside of a bullring or Steelers game. The judges say Yeah or Nay, usually with at least a modicum of tact: the audience, well turned out though they might be, takes great joy in employing no tact at all, especially if they disapprove.

There are a few things that I have observed about this show.

David Hasselhoff has a very small bucket of phrases from which he plucks his "professional" assessments of the extraordinarily varied (in content as well as quality) acts with which he is presented. "You're what this show is all about", "Man, you just owned the stage" and "America needs to see you" are three of the most well exercised phrases he trots out. There is considerably more variety from him when he has bad news for the hopeful in front of him, and he often as not he tries to soften the toe of the boot with a sympathetic look and carefully chosen stock phrase. But the question that keeps coming to mind is: What qualifies this aging stud to judge anybody? So far I've failed to come up with an answer.

Sharon Osbourne brings the soft, kind, yet perceptive eye of the female to the show. As I understand it she has for many years managed her husband's career and apparently kept her sanity, so kudos to her on that. All in all she seems like a decent, clear-eyed judge of talent with a goodly amount of empathy who knows how to express herself with clarity nicely balanced with diplomacy. She's got a grip on life it seems.

Piers Morgan is blunt, brutal, not nearly as funny as he tries to be sometimes, and the one of the three I agree with the most. I do wish he would stop already with the constant reminders that "this is a million dollar talent contest". We know. Those of us who have watched in previous years also know that if you read the scrolling verbiage at the end of the last show of each season that million dollars is doled out over a twenty year period. Nice to have a steady income, but hardly the sort of thing to fling somebody from the Hum-Drum Everyday into a Beverly Hills zipcode. And so far exactly one winner of this show has established any sort of career. They trotted out ventriloquist Terry Fador once again this season, but I haven't heard a peep about last year's winner. Shame on me, I don't even remember his name, just that he was quite round, loved his mother very much and sang opera.

Stock phrases are not the exclusive province of the Hoff. Contestants uniformly proclaim that their moment before this Almighty Threesome "means everything" to them and, regardless of their age, that they have been "waiting my whole life for this opportunity". Maybe it's just me, but that sort of comment sounds just a tad different coming from an eight year old singer/keyboard player than from a seventy-five year old stand-up comic.

There is no doubt in my mind that some pretty talented folks never even make it to the stage/TV screen because that would take away from the time given over to the crazies. The early shows devote an extraordinary amount of time to the acts that have no chance whatsoever of advancing. And why do the massively untalented get all this air time? Because shame on us we all get at least a bit of a kick out of watching the deluded amongst us. Makes us feel, if not superior then at least comfortable in knowing that we would never make such fools of ourselves. We know our limits.

This week saw the first twelve of the forty-eight acts that advanced to the Whatever-Finals perform on Tuesday and then receive the results of the viewer voting on Wednesday. Five stay, seven go back to what they were doing before. That is, if they haven't already been replaced at their workplace. The top four vote getters come back for the next show, the fifth place is decided by the three distinguished judges between the acts that placed fifth and sixth in the viewer voting. Last evening it came down to two very talented young people. A girl singer and a boy dancer. If I recall correctly they are both about fourteen or fifteen years old. The girl sang very well, although I'm not a big Belter fan. Heck, I was hoping that when Whitney Houston went off the radar we would be spared all that noise, but for what she did she did it extremely well. The boy took a chance by showcasing some impressive piano skills before getting down to the dancing. He's good, really good, but he needs a better choreographer. When the three judges came back with their votes, it was no surprise. The show is loaded with girl singers but there is only one boy dancer (we're not counting the hip-hop and acrobatic groups, this kid is aiming at Broadway or maybe the ballet). In order to keep the show filled with as many different sorts of acts as possible they had to go with the dancer.

In the end I guess the reason I watch this show is because I can relate it to the publishing world. It's not always about finding the best talent, it's about doing what is perceived to be good for business. AGT isn't really about giving unknowns the chance of a lifetime. It's about selling advertising time. And the roadmap they are following to that El Dorado is the one in which you appeal to as wide, and as undiscerning an audience as possible. Step One: Make Fun of Others; Step Two (alternated as evenly as possible with Step One): Give Us a Brave Soldier/Against All Odds Story; Step Three: make sure Everyone Has Somebody To Cheer For and Everyone Has Somebody to Boo.

I've no problem with that roadmap. But sometimes I have a problem with me allowing them to take me along for the ride.

Usually this is where I put "Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise" but I think we'll pass this time.


Keeno said...

Everyone loves The Hoff! And he can judge ofthers as he has more talent that then rest of the contestants put together

this film I made proves that ;)



plumboz said...

Hi Keeno,

Well, let's just say that your film (which, by the way, is a very funny creation) is well worth watching. As for the Hoff all by his lonesome, without benefit of your insightful commentary, not so much.


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I am a writer with a longtime interest in photography. I'm a dad, husband, photographer, and not very good guitarist. My first novel, Boomerang, is available in both paperback and ebook form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and As a matter of fact, my second novel, The Baer Boys, can be found at exactly the same places.