Review: First live 'America's Got Talent' gives license for joy

Maybe it’s the smiles. 

In its 12th season, NBC’s America’s Got Talent is surging in the ratings to its biggest audience yet, and racking up views on YouTube. Tuesday night, judge Howie Mandel told one act that it was likely creating smiles in living rooms across America. And he’s probably not wrong. 

AGT has always been a show that reveled in schmaltz and spectacle, and its inspiring and weird acts may be too sugary sweet for some viewers. But as judge Heidi Klum noted during the broadcast, the world and the news are sad all the time. It feels good to be happy about a 9-year-old singing her heart out. 

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The first live show of the season had a few bumps, but the 12 acts, the judges — Mandel and Klum are joined by Simon Cowell and Mel B — and host Tyra Banks were in sync most often when the fantastical acts were so big and so breathtaking they offered a joyful escape. 

The two-hour episode lost its way when real life interfered with the fantasy. One of the acts to perform was aptly named “The Singing Trump,” and the performer, in full garb as President Trump, danced and sang his way across the stage to mixed results. In critiquing him, Mandel  quoted the real Trump’s severely critiqued response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va.: “As you said earlier this week, bad things on both sides.” The audience didn’t know how to react, and Banks made a horrified face. Mandel quickly added, “Horrible line,” but the momentum stopped dead. 

The other problematic performance was Puddles Pity Party, a sad clown who sang Lorde’s Royals. Simon hit the buzzer partway through the performance because he didn’t feel connected to it, and Heidi echoed his negative opinion during the judging. She wanted to be happy. Sad clowns don’t usually help with that. 

But the rest of the episode was a giant celebration. The acts were diverse and genuinely talented, from a South Korean dance troupe to a roller-skating couple with death-defying moves. Inclusiveness, hard work and ambition were celebrated. Inspirational stories were told. 

Banks doesn’t host with quite as much verve as her predecessor Nick Cannon (who left the series on less than friendly terms after last season). Her enthusiasm is a bit too muted for the occasion. There’s better chemistry among the judges, although Banks did contribute to the sunny tone of the evening in a yellow and floral skater dress and yellow pumps. 

As enthused as the judges were about most of the acts that performed, they won’t all make it through to next week’s semifinals. The smart money is on the ones that made you cry. 

 

usatoday.com