Here’s a sentence I never thought I would write: NBC’s America’s Got Talent is the first standout show of the summer and is on its way to becoming one of the best programs of the year.
After watching last week’s two-hour season premiere, I can say in all seriousness that if the hallmark of a strong television show is its ability to entertain viewers while establishing an essential emotional connection with them, then Talent really is tops.
I didn’t even like this show in 2007 (although I was happy to see ventriloquist Terry Fater take home the grand prize) and I hardly remember anything about its freshman year. In fact, I almost ignored its return last week, since nothing I saw in Talent’s first two seasons engaged me on any level, emotional or otherwise. It wasn’t even tasty trash.
But Talent caught me completely off guard last week with a terrifically enjoyable and intermittently moving season opener. I’ll give some credit to affable host Jerry Springer and judges Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne and David Hasselhoff, an interesting if not altogether appealing trio, but it was the competitors themselves who won me over.
There were two in particular -- a teenage baton twirler named Jonathan Birkin and a humble opera singer named Neal E. Boyd -- who disarmed me so completely I was forced to reconsider any prior negative impressions I had of this show. What started out feeling like a glorified freak show two summers ago was transformed right before my eyes into a platform where deserving individuals who have worked hard all of their lives could enjoy some well-deserved recognition and be rewarded simply for being themselves, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Jonathan’s story was especially moving. He spoke of being mercilessly “tormented” throughout his years in school because he loved baton twirling. (He was even mocked in front of his parents in town parades.) “Every day I’d go home in tears,” he quietly explained. Then he delivered a Vegas-ready performance of such power that it had the audience on its feet cheering. “All those kids who called you names can shove it!” Hasselhoff exclaimed as Jonathan’s proud mother joined him on stage.
It was the feel good moment of the year -- until the end of the show, when insurance salesman and aspiring opera singer Neal E. Boyd (below) appeared. His childhood story was as touching as Jonathan’s. “It was just my mother, my brother and I,” Neal softly explained, noting that, even though they were poor, he never realized it because there was so much love in his family. And then he sang Nessun Dorma with so much heart that the audience and the judges leapt to their feet and seemed to float above the floor. Hundreds of hearts were soaring in that moment -- right there on NBC! Even Piers Morgan got off his ass.
I can absolutely see Jonathan and Neal on the final show of the season. There won’t be a dry eye in the audience.
There were a few of the weirdos on hand for which this show is known, including a young man whose lone talent seemed to be the ability to stick out his tongue and lick his nose and a set of aggressively talentless twins from Romania who refer to themselves as Indiggo and positively murdered New York, New York. (They were so fantastically terrible and so relentless in their self-promotion that Piers and Sharon voted them through to the Las Vegas semi-finals.) But there were other marvels, too, including Jonathan, a dancing trombone player with talent and energy to spare, and Kaitlyn, an adorable four-year-old girl who charmed everyone with her teeny tiny (and totally on-key) rendition of Somewhere Out There.
Talent is off to a very promising start this summer -- so promising, in fact, that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if NBC next year were to move it from summer to spring. Look at what summer starters Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Dancing with the Stars did for ABC, or what Survivor did for CBS. And let’s not forget that Fox first ran American Idol as a summer show.
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