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‘America’s Got Talent’ almost gives Reality TV a good name

I love “America’s Got Talent.”

It’s my favorite reality talent competition – along with “Dancing With the Stars.” Yes, I know that means I’ve fallen hook, line and sinker into the vast sea of Simon Cowell Enterprises (“America’s Got Talent” is his invention and his show, even if he saves his onscreen snark for “The X-Factor.”) But hey, it’s summertime TV and you can’t expect all that much.

Here’s what I love about “America’s Got Talent.”

1. The Judges, particularly Howard Stern. When Stern was named a judge on the show in a place Piers Morgan and David Hasselhoff had once been, the near-universal reaction was horror, as if after all his years of professional showbiz he would somehow forget where it was appropriate to talk about the genitalia of the rich and famous (satellite radio) and where it’s not (prime TV network TV that even dogs and cats can watch).

Nothing that Stern presents about himself on the air is genuine. Which means, in a way, it all is. The self-adoring, dirty-minded megalomaniacal blowhard that he affects is an act. You can bet the farm that the real guy is a mature, compassionate grown-up who, long ago, invented a public personality that works and knows how to operate it in all weather conditions.

So if you put Heidi Klum next to him, you can jolly well bet he’ll make a few PG-rated passes at lechery but they won’t amount to a hill of frijoles. Keep tuning in and you’ll see America’s Favorite Valkyrie Model actually functioning briefly as the judges’ temporary chairman. (Just for show, mind you, on the very next week – the judge who calls for other judges to vote and such.)

AMT’s judge panel this year works with extreme smoothness. Klum and Mel B. (formerly “Scary” Spice) are a beauteous sorority of two. Stern and Howie Mandel understand each other down to the core, the way a shock jock and a comedian should.

Judge selection by the producers of these reality competitions is a fine art. “American Idol” proved that. The minute they put Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey on the same judge panel, you saw it done with specimen incompetence.

Of COURSE “American Idol’s” setup was going to tank; the judge panel was odious and instantly unwatchable. Either disagreeable witch Nicky Minaj or mega-diva Mariah Carey alone would be enough to make for an automatic dial-out. (Please look up, in Carey’s diva career, her catastrophic EMI contract and film career.) Put them together in a hoped-for weekly diva slugfest and you have one of the top ten stupid ideas in television history.

It was enormously unpleasant to watch. “Creepy” was the best it ever got. It presented America weekly with the strained saintliness of Randy Jackson, Keith Urban and, yes, Ryan Seacrest. It turned the show’s contestants into also-ran chimps which undermined the show completely and came as close as possible to actually killing a goose that has previously laid nothing but golden eggs.

2. The Host. AGT’s Nick Cannon – who is Mr. Mariah Carey – is the perfect lovable clowning foil to the AGT judges. His act is “I’m just a nice guy who wants to show you a good time and entertain America.” He’s like a minor league version of Will Smith when he’s got his full personality wattage turned on.

The hosts of these reality competitions are far more important than people think. The glibness of Tom Bergeron on “Dancing With the Stars” carries the show through everything – stars fainting on stage, you name it. If the apocalypse ever comes, Bergeron will instantly concoct a workable quip for it.

Ryan Seacrest may be the most underrated man in all of television. Not in income, mind you. His haul from all his enterprises makes him one of the bigger successes in American showbiz. But the mighty mite of “American Idol” holds it together and keeps it human. He always gave the producers plenty of backstage humanity to work with in the cutting room and on-camera competence to keep it going even when Minaj and Carey declared Diva-geddon.

Watch the show carefully sometime ignoring everything but all the things that Seacrest does to keep the show human-scaled. It’s a formidable weekly performance.

3. The Contestants. It’s the big one to me. AGT gives you the full nutty spectacle of vaudeville, nouveau vaudeville, circus entertainment and side show freakiness. It’s glorious, just glorious.

I can’t watch “American Idol” at all after the first round of cattle-call auditions. Once the show gets serious about people competing for phony baloney record deals and their just desserts from Clive Davis, I’m over at another channel.

All of the “voice” shows are the same to me. “Dancing With the Stars” works because of the producers’s slyly transgressive choice of “stars” to compete (Bristol Palin? Steve-O? Genius, just genius. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kato Kaelin show up some day.)

On AGT, you’ve got everything (this season) from a guy doing a handstand on a sway pole 80 feet in the air to snake tormentors goading rattlers to lunge and burst the balloons stuck in their mouths to John Mayer-like singers composing tributes to a Dad who used to be an alcoholic but who straightened out.

In the primordial era of “what-the-hell” TV creativity, I once saw Steve Allen on his old Westinghouse Network show – yes Steve Allen – do a clumsy version of a sway pole act. But you have to realize that Allen came from a vaudeville family. This was a guy from nowhere doing one of the most dangerous circus acts there is. Whoever in America is deluded into thinking they’ve got an act America would just love is liable to show up on “America’s Got Talent.” It’s a Mega-Gong Show – The Amateur Hour To End All Amateur Hours.

And when the “competition” escalates, you can still wind up with a bunch of break dancing kids from Newark slugging it out with a ventriloquist and a magician, all to get a big check from Las Vegas. Who needs would-be Carrie Underwoods begging to industrialize their musical selves and extinguish all traces of their individuality? (Listen to Kat Edmonson sometime. There was a singer who was way too good for “Idol.”)


If you watched the new season premiere of “Major Crimes” on TNT Monday, you got a sense of garden variety summertime TV which is literally sometimes, a cut-rate version of what was once pretty good (Kyra Sedgwick and J.K. Simmons are gone from what was known as “The Closer.” Sedgwick’s old onscreen husband Jon Tenney is now a co-star of TNT’s “King and Maxwell.”)

That doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot to look forward to this month. Try these: the return of HBO’s “True Blood” this evening; CBS’ “Under the Dome” June 24; the return of “Rizzoli and Isles” on June 25; the newest incarnation of CBS’ great reality torture chamber “Big Brother” on June 26; and one of the biggest TV nights of them all, the return of “Dexter” for its final season on Showtime to be immediately followed by the first season of “Ray Donovan” starring Liev Schreiber as a fixer whose father is played – get this now – by Jon Voight.

Any show that could imagine that Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight were father and son deserves your allegiance.

Stay tuned for FX’s “The Bridge” and, yes, the mid-July return of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom.”

America really does have talent, sometimes even on television during the summer.