Fifty percent American Idol. Fifty percent The Gong Show. One hundred percent spectacle. That's the crib notes summary of America's Got Talent.
The talent side of things borrows heavily from American Idol's format (no surprise, given the fact that former Idol judge Simon Cowell is an executive producer). And it boils down to this: An oddball collection of risqué, heartwarming, shocking or outright bizarre performers parade in front of three judges, whose hands are poised on buttons that light up a giant X if they're not pleased. (Viewers get to vote once the judges have whittled the field down a bit.)
The faces of those judges have changed as the seasons have turned, but their mode is always the same: hiss, boo, clap, cry or crack jokes, depending on what the performer has just done. Piers Morgan, David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osbourne became the face of the show early on. Then comedian/actor/game show host Howie Mandel took The Hoff's place. And shock jock Howard Stern has slipped into Piers Morgan's seat.
Much has been made of Stern joining the judges. After all, the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" has been spouting some seriously objectionable material on the radio for decades now, playing up his penchant to shock for all it's worth. "You never know what he's going to say!" enthused Mandel. And Stern himself chimed in with, "I don't know who's responsible for [my hiring], but they should be fired immediately." But for all the hype, Stern hasn't transformed this schizophrenic show—he's merely added a few wrinkles to its already bumpy landscape.
Over the years, the show's producers have let everybody know that they're aiming for as broad an audience as possible by blending acts that tug hard at heartstrings with what David Letterman would call "stupid human tricks." We see fathers and daughters singing sweet ballads together. Fresh-faced dance troupes tapping their hearts out. But also interjected are moments of raw, unapologetic "sexiness"—from a Snow White look-alike-turned-stripper to a male magician who disrobes as part of his act to a sword-balancing Siberian transvestite dressed in nothing but a loincloth, angel wings and dabs of glitter.
For the record, the sword-balancer was sent home by the judges, but show producers kept bringing him back for more exploitative "second chances." Add "run of the mill" backup dancers sporting suggestive moves and skimpy costumes, and, well, you end up with a competition that caters every bit as much to viewers' baser instincts as it does to the grander empathies of their hearts.
Osbourne, Mandel and Stern react with sarcasm and crassness … but also empathy, appreciation and a surprising level of patience at times. They'll openly mock the people parading before them … and then tear up over the cute kid who doesn't really deserve to "win" the round—but gets sent through to the next level anyway.
This thing really and truly feels like a circus. It's wild. It's crazy. It's loud. It's bombastic. It features a guy shooting crossbow bolts at his assistant. It even breathes fire sometimes. But it also gives a carny's tip of the hat to what has always made the circus so memorable: family togetherness.
Still, when we originally weighed in on the competition shortly after it premiered, our reviewer Bob Hoose wrote, "I had a quirky aunt whose idiosyncrasies always made everyone laugh. But inevitably she'd launch into a story about her wild weekend in the Adirondacks with a male model. Mom would turn red and usher her out of the room. … Like [that] entertaining but bawdy aunt, America's Got Talent wants to be invited into your living room each and every summer break. Think twice before letting her in. She may be amusing, but do you really want the kids around when she swigs from that whiskey flask strapped to her thigh?"
The question holds.
"Los Angeles/St. Louis"
We see a shirtless sax player gyrate sexily while playing, and other performers in midriff-baring and shape-hugging outfits. The season begins with a magician/stripper who disrobes down to his skivvies, showing off tight-fitting satin shorts and nipple piercings. Stern insults the guy's "package," and when another departing contestant tells the crowd that his parents have passed, Stern quips, "And they died of embarrassment?"
The proceedings are further marred by words like "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and a misuse of God's name. Two harsher profanities are bleeped. And when a man "performs" by sticking huge needles through his cheeks and neck, Cannon tells the performer's infant boy, "You're too young to be seeing this stuff."
It's salient advice for many families.
But there are sweet moments as well. Cute little kids charm the socks off even curmudgeonly Stern. When two street performers—a father and his talented 18-year-old daughter—take the stage and sing "You've Got a Friend," it brings host Nick Cannon to tears. And when the daughter, Chanisse, says that her father is her best friend, Stern tells them that the two appear to have a relationship that many a father and daughter would envy. "This is what I call perfection," he says.
These "try outs" highlight quite a bit of flesh. Women are seen wearing skimpy bikinis, short skirts and low-cut tops. The camera zooms in on the buxom chest of a woman who jumps up and down. And a female little person wearing a bikini does a partial striptease, hamming it up and encouraging the cheering crowd to laugh at her. A very large and filthy, barely dressed guy also does a dance of sorts (and gets booed). Another man appears in drag. Still another is shown wearing what looks like a Speedo. Several men are briefly shown wearing very tight spandex. A 6-year-old break-dances, making suggestive pelvic thrusts that the judges and audience applaud.
A flamboyant guy sings Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." Britney Spears' sexually suggestive song "3" is played as background music. A woman pushes large needles through the skin on her legs and back. In a white-knuckle Wild West show, knives are thrown dangerously close to a woman's body. Balloons are also shot inches away from her head. A man dives into 12 inches of water from a height of 26 feet. In flashbacks to previous episodes, an electric drill is briefly shown penetrating one contestant's nose and another's mouth while a man's eye sockets carry the weight of bricks that dangle on hooked chains. Bad language includes several uses of "h‑‑‑," "frickin'" and a misuse of God's name.
The scales aren't quite balanced out by a soaring rendition of "Ave Maria" and a boys-and-girls dance team that presents a beautiful routine in silhouette.
This "results show" episode includes footage that re-airs many of the preceding performance episode's problems, as well as host Nick Cannon's repeated use of the word "a‑‑." God's name is also misused. Disney star Selena Gomez and her band, The Scene, perform; she wears a fairly short dress and sports a few mildly suggestive dance moves. Much more sensual are the lingerie-clad backup dancers for two singers from the Broadway hit Rock of Ages. A member of the air rock team Airpocalypse says of his stay in L.A., "While we've been here, it's been all models and bottles."
Best performance? Two sisters singing Rascal Flatts' "God Bless the Broken Road." Lots of other moments, though, aren't so good or so clean. Howie Mandel describes a group of martial arts performers as "Power Rangers with no shirts and eye shadow." Scantily clad female dancers writhe suggestively during an air band's performance. Other women act out strip club-like moves while silhouetted behind screens. After a 5- and 10-year-old break-dancing act concludes, Howie quips, "What a waste, your youth, because you could have any woman you want." When a 75-year-old evaluates her performance by saying, "My inner kitty cat is purring," Howie responds, "Sally, you're a dirty girl." A woman who's determined to inject sex appeal into art paints a portrait of Piers Morgan—while she's underwater and the camera is zooming in on her cleavage.
A daredevil plays with fire, earning Nick Cannon's warning, "Kids, do not try this at home." He also says "kick some a‑‑" or "kick your a‑‑" a couple of times. God's name is misused.