The title of the latest success to come out of Simon Cowell's expanding empire, "America's Got Talent" (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET) surely sounds as much like a hopeful incantation as it does like a happy, excited exclamation. After all, America is a big place. We must have talent, right? We certainly think we do, because we've made this show one of the biggest successes of the summer.
In fact, this show is casting a far wider net, talent-wise, than most other similar operations. Where "American Idol" and "Rock Star" have focused on a national preoccupation with singing, "America's Got Talent" features singing, but has gotten most of its attention from its willingness to bring in everything that isn't singing. The show has developed into a potluck supper of bird calls, balloon animals, juggling, magic, and a few things that don't fit neatly into any particular category. This last set would include the guy who gradually worked his way into a giant balloon until just his head was sticking out, along with the one who was, it is safe to say, the first person network television has ever shown breakdancing while dressed as a freakishly enormous cow.
It's easy to dismiss this as an updated version of "The Gong Show," and the fact that the three judges can knock a contestant out mid-performance by unanimously hitting their buzzers makes that comparison seem even more apt. But although the show certainly has its share of train wrecks and freak shows, it is not primarily an ironic demonstration that America has no talent. It is primarily a demonstration that an awful lot of people have talents from which they can never expect to make one penny or get a second of fame. So the focus of the show isn't so much "America's Got Talent" as it is "America's Got Unmarketable Talent."
You might ask yourself what would lead anyone to believe that people in large numbers would sit down in their living rooms to watch something that amounts to little more than "Here's this guy who does this thing — ta-da!" The answer, of course, is, "the Internet." YouTube and other viral video outbreaks have proved beyond question that there's a big audience for a category that might be most aptly referred to as the things you've never minded not being able to do. Make a fountain-like display from Mentos and Diet Coke? Never thought of that! Kids in dorm rooms lip-synching to '80s New Wave bands? Never thought of that, either!
As is often the case with a show like this, the genius is in the tone, and the tone is in the details. Of the three judges, one is a Mean Brit named Piers, clearly bred on the same Mean Brit farm that spawned not only Simon himself but also judges on "So You Think You Can Dance" and "American Inventor." You can't have a judging panel without one, really. The second judge is Brandy, a very Paula-Abdul-esque choice, in that her cultural relevance is a memory, though not an entirely distant memory. Her role is much like Paula's: she likes many more acts than anyone else, and she hands out praise to everyone, regardless of actual ability. The third judge — and this is the beauty part — is David Hasselhoff, last seen earnestly tearing up at the "American Idol" finale.
You see, at some point, right around the midpoint of "Baywatch," long after his stint on "Knight Rider," Hasselhoff became the Hasselhoff, and including him puts the show right where it wants to be, in terms of the balance between camp and … even more camp. If you're going to make a show where someone is going to sit on a judging panel and admit that he's deathly afraid of jugglers, you want it to be David Hasselhoff. Hasselhoff lends everything he touches an air of the surreal, like his very existence has become so ironic that it's no longer clear whether he's just uncool, so uncool that he's cool, or too much of a symbol of "so uncool he's cool" to actually be cool. The Hasselhoff works on a number of levels both hip and square, which is exactly what has elevated "American Idol" to its current lofty position.
Despite the arched eyebrow inherent in the display of many a misguided soul who has previously shown off his "talent" only to beleaguered relatives, there is genuine affection among the judges for many of the performers — especially the kids. Eleven-year-old Taylor Ware, who taught herself to yodel out of a book (or so she claims), has apparently warmed even the heart of the Mean Brit. The Miller Brothers received mixed news from the Mean Brit, however, when young LD was told that he would never be successful unless he ditched his dead-weight brother Cole. Seeing LD break up and seeing Cole try to reassure him was more than a little uncomfortable, but what's a talent show if you don't get to see a kid cry?
The adults are far more likely to take it on the chin. The Mean Brit has no tolerance for costume-based tomfoolery, which is fairly common in this skit-night environment. Hasselhoff has his previously mentioned fear of jugglers, and the entire judging panel turned en masse against an unsuspecting dog trainer when the second version of his act wasn't as lively as the first. Of course, getting to see a British guy kick a dog trainer around is probably worth sitting through a few guys in drag.
What's odd is that what really sticks out on "America's Got Talent" are the contestants who seem too pedestrian — who have talent in a manner that's too obvious. By the time the first round of semifinals came around, the pleasant-voiced woman singing "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" seemed remarkable for her ordinariness, even though she was playing the harp at the time. You can imagine that woman being asked to play weddings. You can imagine hearing her entertaining the crowd at your favorite fancy restaurant. Similarly, the cabaret guy who was told by the Mean Brit to head for Broadway got a bit lost in the shuffle. There's already a place in the world for the cabaret guy, provided he's prepared to beat up Michael Buble.
No, this show is for the yodelers and puppeteers, for the guys who balance stoves on their chins and have nowhere else to turn. They've made their Web sites, they've won a talent contest at church — perhaps the breakdancing cow didn't, but the point remains the same. Without this show, they would toil in obscurity forever, wondering when someone was going to suddenly realize that they haven't seen a truly great contortionist doing archery in quite a long time. Their "talent" in hand, they have answered the call of Simon Cowell, and surprisingly, America has welcomed them, balloon animals and all.