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TV Series Review

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.


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Episode Reviews

AmericasGotTalent: 5-14-2012
AmericasGotTalent: 6-8-2011
AmericasGotTalent: 7-14-2010
AmericasGotTalent: 7-13-2010
We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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