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Jeff Simon: Tyra Banks and the triumph of 'America's Got Talent'

Jeff Simon

Tyra Banks is No. 1 — among current TV personalities, that is.

So says the Hollywood Reporter's latest measurement of popularity on social media. This measurement seems to have been made through some algorithmic calculation of tweets, YouTube clicks and more. Follows and engagement are taken into account, along with who knows what all. However the figure is reached, Banks has rung the bell 10 times this year so far in the weekly calculations.

After her, recurring names in the Social Media Sweepstakes, according to THR, are: Gordon Ramsey, James Corden, Jake Tapper, Chris Hayes, Mike Huckabee, Lawrence O'Donnell, Bill Maher, Mike Rowe and Stephen Colbert.

You'll notice the statuesque model, actress and former boisterous morning talk show extrovert is the only woman on the list that is otherwise notable for being a good deal more political (and liberal) than one might have imagined.

In Banks' case,  I understand it completely. Her current gig is to be the emcee of the best reality contest currently on the air, "America's Got Talent," the homespun version of Simon Cowell's worldwide franchise. In the grand tradition begun in America by Ryan Seacrest and "American Idol," Banks is the one who kibitzes backstage and consoles losers and those understandably afflicted with the shakes. She does whatever non-sectarian rooting she can on the sidelines for all those risking making damn fools of themselves in front of America.

It's an inherently sympathetic role as it has been developed on TV from Seacrest's original template. Their job is to be the advocates of ever-vulnerable humanity, even that part of it that thinks it's a special talent to squeeze one's palms together and make pseudo-flatulent noises that approximate musical tones.

I'm not making that last one up. It was the "talent" possessed by one of AGT's contestants this year. Scholars of American television will, no doubt, remember when Johnny Carson had a fellow on with the exact same talent. He called himself a "manualist." The selection he performed for Carson was a rippingly patriotic version of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." As he got to the rousing melodic conclusion, a chortling Ed McMahon urged him to "bring it home, bring it home."

Banks, like Ed McMahon, is awfully good at the cheerleading "bring it home" role even though the show makes it clear she doesn't always approve of the things some Americans are capable of doing on television under the delusion it makes up a kind of "show business."

That, of course, is one of the reasons I love the show, especially in its early audition phases. It's also why I'm joined by many millions of people these days who regularly tune into the International Smash Hit's domestic version, which is having its most watched season ever in America (the American judges are Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and former Spice Girl Mel B.)

What we've taken to calling "reality TV" has certain recurrent narratives on its talent shows, and I tend to be a sucker for all of them.

On "Dancing with the Stars," they're adept at taking jocks and other public figures who've run afoul of American popularity for very good reasons (Tonya Harding, for instance) and then rehabilitating those figures as much as possible.

What makes it "real," however calibrated and scripted it all is, is that you never know how people portraying themselves on TV will act, when cameras require them to do so. A woman like Harding, who is famous for having friends who kneecap her opponents, can be sympathetic in a kind of middle-aged last gasp for public attention (after a movie about her won an Oscar for Allison Janney as her mother).

On the other hand, no matter how much charm a former Olympic athlete will possess, she still may suddenly say something ill-advised, arrogant and egotistical, and you realize that no matter how much you dress it up with gravy and cranberry sauce, human personality is far more unpredictable than even reality TV knows.

For instance, did producer Mark Burnett have the vaguest idea our current president would be what he has turned out to be when he was on weekly TV smugly barking "You're fired" at hapless contestants for his affection on "The Apprentice"? (Surely one of the nastiest and most pitiless reality shows of all time, but one that has revealed to Americans just how much nonsensical credence we place in great wealth and little else.)

To be humanity's advocate on a TV reality show — a star in the "bring it home" role — is inherently sympathetic to a huge degree. Banks performs that role smashingly every Tuesday. (On every Sunday this season, the show is repeated, which, no doubt, is helping to account for its 2018 ratings juggernaut.)

Many of the narratives of reality shows have been become standards — magic acts, for instance, in which the magician is saved just in the nick of time from death by drowning or fire or infestations of scorpions. Last week's big audience favorite in AGT was 13-year-old Courtney Hadwin, an awkward, shy kid from England who — we were told — came out on stage fearing the worst (being buzzed offstage by judges) and conquered the entire theater with an explosive version of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" that was somewhere between Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker.

We see that a lot in reality TV — frumpily dressed people who suddenly blossom while doing 450 horsepower rockers. Hadwin had, in fact, previously been on "The Voice," but she was treated on AGT as if she were fresh and dewy and just off the shelf.

It was, whatever else it may have been, irresistible.

With her height and extroverted personality, Banks looks and acts as if she could function as the protector of the clumsiest and shyest misfit. And all the time, her urgings to "bring it home, bring it home" would be louder than anyone else's.

She deserves every penny of her salary.

And every mysterious point of her digital popularity, however the bloody thing is calibrated.

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