Let the ‘talent’ be ‘talent’, and let the judges judge - The Buffalo News
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Let the ‘talent’ be ‘talent’, and let the judges judge

I love “America’s Got Talent.” Without embarrassment.

That’s why I’m a tiny bit worried about it.

We are, in summertime, in a season of distinctly lesser TV, the shows that don’t command our attention the way things like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” or “The Good Wife” do. The likable and usually modest TNT network, for instance, is back in business with “Major Crimes, “Rizzoli and Isles” and a new TV cop show by Steven Bochco called “Murder in the First” (which is not to be confused with his prematurely yanked lawyer show of the ’90’s called “Murder One” starring the creepily memorable Daniel Benzali).

Before the month is out TNT will give us a TV show from Michael Bay called “The Last Ship.” Five days later there will be a new Bay “Transformers” movie, the fourth installment that so few of us over the age of 40 have been asking for.

I must confess, though, it’s “America’s Got Talent” that’s making me happiest at the moment, in its schlocky way. Of all the “reality” shows – talent contest division – it’s my favorite, along with “Dancing with the Stars.”

I’ve never been a dedicated watcher of “American Idol” or “The Voice” for the simple reason that the major leagues of America’s music “industry” aren’t of commanding interest to me so why should the minors be? But I find “America’s Got Talent” – whose co-creator is Simon Cowell – is what makes me happiest when “Dancing with the Stars” is not around.

What I like about both is that they’re so successful at stretching what the middle-class TV network audience thinks is “normal” to watch on television. One of AGT’s judges, Howard Stern, was once one of the FCC’s least favorite “shock jocks” on radio, until he proved conclusively that his tongue is eminently tamable. Another judge, Howie Mandel, is the celebrity poster boy for germaphobia.

“AGT” is full of New Vaudeville and semi-freak show business – all the things network TV stopped showing us when Letterman stopped doing “Is This Anything?” with Paul Shaffer.

Some of it is so weird and even disturbed that it is a cause for true wonderment, if not troubled concern. No contender for music biz adoption, for instance, can match a mediocre magician of two decades whose trick required Stern to wear a white rubber glove and pluck a playing card from between the contestant’s butt cheeks.

That, I submit, is as close to “The Aristocrats” level of show business as prime-time TV is ever going to get. At the same time, the stories behind the most ordinary contestants (singers, for instance) can be genuinely heart-rending – a boy singer, for instance, shunted with his sister from foster home to foster home as a child until being adopted for good at 8 by the adoring woman he now lovingly calls his mother.

What is real and what is not in such tales is unknowable. It goes without saying that these shows are not only more scripted than we think but far more tightly put together too. When AGT’s delightful judges – Stern, Mandel, Mel B. and Heidi Klum – know that a contestant is on the way with a sentimental film “package” or with a heart-tugging story that is not to be messed with, you can see that, to some extent, the fix is in. The judges have been clearly hipped before hand to the contestants that are going to make for “great TV.”

Not that they’ve been told what to say – only that showbiz troupers that they are, they trust the producers and behind-the-scenes triagists enough to know where the “good TV” is likely to be. And they’re never wrong.

That’s why I have a minor trepidation about the show: both emcee Nick Cannon and judges Stern and Mandel are being pulled into the act a bit too much for my taste.

I don’t blame the show or the “judges” and the “emcee.” They’re major strengths – huge draws for viewers and oh-so-cleverly assembled (“AGT,” the top four judges on TV in my opinion). And keeping them happy can’t always be easy for the producers. Airtime shenanigans for them no doubt help.

It’s the lack of true spontaneity in them I find off-putting. I have no doubt that there are millions at home pleased by all of them. Personally, I think their artificiality obtrudes a bit on the chief reasons I watch – the narratives from the “other America” and the extreme showbiz others wouldn’t touch with a shrimp fork.

It’s in keeping, though, with what was discovered on this past season of “Dancing with the Stars.” You would think that no narrative could possibly be more winning at contest’s end than that of Amy Purdy, paralympic snowboarder who was dancing on two prosthetic legs.

It turned out that the show had, hiding in plain sight, an exploitable narrative of its own that could trump everything else – the plight of tempestuous and charismatic Ukrainian professional dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy who, despite his large season-to-season viewer popularity (especially among women), had never won the show’s “mirror ball trophy” (among the least-covetable items, in and of itself, in all of America).

Put him in a possibly romantic couple with Meryl Davis, a gold medal-winning Olympic ice dancer, and the show’s own homegrown “star” trumped everyone else competing. That was especially true because he and Davis were, by far, the best dancers on the show.

It goes without saying that there are no actual “stars” on “DWTS,” only people in various different levels of need for a career boost. What I like so much about the show is its insistence every season on forcing American couch potatoes to accept as normal viewing on weekly prime-time things they’d never have thought they would – transgender Chaz Bono, say, or Bristol Palin or one season’s winner, badly burn-scarred Iraq War veteran and soap star J.R. Martinez.

Talent contests have been essential to broadcasting since “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour” began on radio in the ’30s. So have personal narratives of terrible hardship. (No show on primordial TV could best the likes of “Queen for a Day” or “Strike It Rich.”)

All we have now are clever 21st century ways to mash the two together as “reality TV” that’s primitive but huge audience bait.

What the last season of DWTS proved for us, though, is that interest in these shows themselves as soap operas and comic spectacles is as potentially popular as anything the outside world might offer.

If the judges and emcee on “America’s Got Talent” want to goof around a little for the sake of ego palliatives, they should be allowed to.

As long as the show doesn’t forget the business it’s in.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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