The Uncool, Undeniable Appeal Of 'America's Got Talent'

Prestige TV this is not, but we're eating it up.

We probably weren’t using the word “viral” to describe the skyrocket success of odd, mesmerizing one-off moments from television in 2003, but it’s safe to say that the most-watched clips from reality competition shows looked significantly different from the ones widely shared on social networks today.

That was the year William Hung, a civil engineering student at UC Berkeley, carved out his legacy in pop culture with an off-key, humorless rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” for the judges of “American Idol.” He was not admitted through to the next round — judge Simon Cowell, known for his straight shooting, simply said, “You can’t sing, you can’t dance, so what do you want me to say?” — but a legion of fans who loved him simply for his outright terrible audition grew around him. Hung made the late-night rounds, earned a meager record deal, and ensured no one could ever think of “She Bangs” in the same way again.

It’s easy to recall friends saying their favorite part of the subsequent “Idol” seasons was the cringe-y auditions; small-screen-watchers loved to lampoon the poor souls who put themselves up for judgment on national television.

Fourteen years later, primetime on basic cable is no longer the only place to watch human foibles unfold in real time. Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, even, the app that’s impossible for anyone born before the year 2000 to understand — there’s no shortage of hours of dumb stunts, terrible singing or ill-advised “pranks” for those seeking it out. Is that why, when looking at the viral moments in the early episodes of “America’s Got Talent” Season 12, stories of unexpected talent, early mastery, and overcoming obstacles are the ones that stand out?

Moreover, in a year marked by unprecedented political divides and large-scale scandals, is the happy innocence of dance-partner children, a chicken who can peck “America the Beautiful” and a Pierrot-esque clown who can belt out “Chandelier” the antidote?

This trend seems to have begun in earnest one year ago. Season 11 of “America’s Got Talent” premiered in a nation that was no less divided than it is today, exhausted from and glued to the nonstop election cycle in equal turns. The premiere hit a ratings high for the show, nabbing the kind of audience numbers (12.6 million) it hadn’t seen since its Season 6 finale. That momentum, likely boosted by the appearance of the charming, gifted, ukelele-toting 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal, carried through to the season finale. VanderWaal took home the top prize, and the competition show earned its most-watched finale in five years, with 14.4 million viewers tuning in. The Google search trends for the program, which show a predictable spike each time the show is on the air, reached a new high with VanderWaal’s win.

“America’s Got Talent,” on its face, is not a “cool” show. It’s wholesome and family-friendly to its core; its variety of acts, good and bad, dates back to programs like “The Gong Show.” Prestige TV it is not. (There’s already been a Trump impersonator getting down to Bruno Mars this season.) Goofy acts abound. And yet the emotional stock is undeniable — try sitting through the audition of Mandy Harvey, a deaf musician who re-learned how to sing through muscle memory and self-trust, as she expertly belts her way through an original tune, without crying. In an internet full of hyperbole, Harvey’s performance is the rare clip that induces the chills and watery eyes it promises.

Except, on “America’s Got Talent,” those chills aren’t rare at all. They’re there when you see young ventriloquist Darci Lynne Farmer begin to tear up at the sight of the room on its feet, thunderous with applause, at the end of her act. They’re back again for the 12-year-old dancer who says his main inspiration is his 80-year-old grandmother, and again when the 21-year-old Yoli Mayor is rebuffed by Cowell, only to earn a standing ovation after starting her audition again. The stories feel classically American: the talented everyman finally getting noticed, the brave upstart overcoming unlikely odds.

Grace VanderWaal winning during the live season finale of "America's Got Talent" in 2016.
Grace VanderWaal winning during the live season finale of "America's Got Talent" in 2016.
NBC via Getty Images

I should acknowledge that the program isn’t an untouchable oasis of kindness. Season 5 star Lindsey Stirling has spoken about the emotional roller coaster of the process, admitting that hearing criticism from the judges can be hurtful. (It’s easy to imagine these kinds of highs and lows could affect all those cute kids, who haven’t had a chance to develop thick skin that showbiz often requires, even more.) There was also the controversy over a couple who claimed host Tyra Banks “physically manipulated and verbally abused” their daughter offstage while they were performing.

Even while in the emotional throes of watching the auditions over and over again on YouTube, you wonder about the corporate hand behind it all, perhaps calculating the right combination of perceived obstacles, adorable children and stunned judges to elicit the highest rate of tear-jerking. The executives behind “America’s Got Talent” want you to cry, to share the show with your friends, imploring them to cry — but, hey, they’re doing it quite well.

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