There's much to dislike about this bloated show: the endless filler, its pretentions to being anything other than a freak show, the increasingly tedious judges and its patently phony "audition process."
I was off to a rocky start when this season opened with an update on season two's winner: Who's that? I watched the first two seasons religiously, but have no recall for the winners. It's the glorious losers I still hold dear: the 10-foot Russian drag queen in a sparkly jock strap who cried; the utterly breathtakingly mystifying quick-change pair; and, of course, Boy Shakira.
It's why I watch -- because imbedded in the 90-minute mess are nuggets of pure entertainment. For me, they break down into three groups: surprise, respect and power to the people.
But first the parts I hate: doddering old dears who can't sing or dance but get cooed over (this year's model straight from the Lakeland County Dinner Theater's production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane); fake bookings, like the terrible Tom Jones impersonator; PG-13 strippers; and overly cute kids. Really, parents will pimp their just-turned-4-year-old out to this show? Shouldn't you be this-high before committing to a new career as a cheesy Las Vegas act?
Now, for the good parts:
Surprise: I didn't see that "Bad Girls" trombone-contortionist thing coming! Not worth the million-dollar prize but it earned honest laughs.
Respect: Some acts you gotta root for because they represent so much hard work. The fiddlin' hip-hoppers; ditto all those fast-stepping, hyper-coordinated dance/gymnast/flexy teams. Practice, practice, practice. One minute is about my limit on that stuff, but then again, I do like to see one truly great minute.
Power to the People: Hand's down my favorite acts on the show are the ones that start in boos and end in cheers. The producers, the judges, the set-up -- all that is phony, but the studio audience is a reliable barometer, and when some act makes it through the early boos to win over the roiling mob, that's impressive. Naturally, it speaks well of the performer, but also, let's give props to the howling crowd: They can change their mind.
Last night's clear winner in the boos-to-whoos category was the baby-faced teen-age boy baton twirler. Even after the sympathetic tease reel that talked about all the abuse he'd taken for his as-yet-unidentified talent (gay slurs went unspoken, but easily assumed), the audience greeted his entrance -- sparkly T-shirt and batons -- with derisive hooting and laughter. The game kid twirled, and at the end of his act, the audience literally leapt to their feet in wild cheers and cries of "Vegas, Vegas!" Hell yeah, America's got talent ... or something!
Much love was also shed for the show's closer, the weepy, super-sized opera singer. Like everybody in the audience, I don't know squat about opera, but if it sounds like something we all might have heard in a movie, it's good enough. Truth is, who could hear? The Maestro of Missouri was drowned out with cheers throughout. To me, the dude seemed genuinely touched by the reaction, and thus the show ended on the proverbial high note.
And speaking of The People, I gotta include host Jerry Springer in here. This is a prefect gig for him; he's our Everyman, our conduit to performers. His supportive, humane embracing of the odd and deluded and the ordinary-but-talented is right in Springer's wheelhouse, and he's a zillion times better than Regis Philbin who openly held his nose through season one.
My shame award: The Slippery Kittens burlesque act who weren't that good, but when you shake your titties, you're gonna get votes. But they get the shame award for announcing that their goal was to play for our troops overseas. Drop your drawers, ladies, but don't gild the lily.