Of all the current competition shows, America’s Got Talent is the one that’s most clearly working out of a tradition that extends back to the beginnings of the medium. The Original Amateur Hour, hosted by Ted Mack, started airing in 1948 (yes, kids, there were TV shows before the ’50s) and did what America’s Got Talent does: present a wide variety of acts, not just singers and dancers but also jugglers, ventriloquists, baton twirlers, and the like.
Nowadays, on AGT, Howard Stern verbally twirls Howie Mandel until it sometimes seems the bald germophobe is dizzy. In their spats over contestants such as the pint-size lounge singer Big Barry (Mandel liked him as a Tiny Tim-style novelty act; Stern wanted to buzz him with an ”X” for being boring), the deft shock jock invariably leaves Mandel sputtering defensively.
Stern’s arrival as a judge for the current season was a publicity stunt grounded in shrewdness. Having long made it known on his radio show that he watches all sorts of reality TV, Stern has been vocal about his opinions of contestants on fare like American Idol, The Voice, and AGT. Recruiting the self-described ”King of All Media” for the seventh season immediately drew attention away from remaining judges Mandel and Sharon Osbourne. (Osbourne, who shifted her image from sarcastic harpy to nice-nice maternal figure around the time Susan Boyle single-handedly inspired competition shows to abandon snarky meanness, is now both a familiar TV figure — she also cohosts The Talk — and a dull, neutered one.)
But what about the talent? Now roughly midway through its run, the season has been characterized by a cavalcade of old-fashioned acts attracted by the show’s old-school rewards: a million bucks and, as host Nick Cannon puts it, ”a headline show in Las Vegas.” Does any performer under the age of 50 yearn to headline Vegas? Somehow, AGT has found folks who do, from 14-year-old Danielle Stallings (who possesses the voice of a fortysomething soul singer but was eliminated in the quarter-finals) to the acrobat duo Donovan and Rebecca, who are built like bodybuilders but delicately hoist each other aloft at death-defying heights.
If hoary tradition still anchors AGT — one of the judges’ few unanimous favorites is stand-up comic Tom Cotter, who does Seinfeld-like observational humor — the show has become an ever bigger, louder, brighter, more gaseous affair. Its garish staging and plodding pace make Idol look like a sleek little suspense thriller. Stern has — except for in his arguments with Mandel, which already look staged for ratings bumps — emerged as the voice of articulate reason, offering specific notes to acts for their self-improvement. The show itself, however, remains proudly antiquated. The ghost of Ted Mack hovers over AGT, seeing its reflection in Howie Mandel’s gleaming pate. C+