After having been with the show since season 2, Sharon Osbourne left America’s Got Talent — for many viewers, the last remnant of the show’s classic lineup is gone. In the reality television world, that’s a bad omen: wholesale cast transformations like this, however inevitable, tend to happen once a show has hit its peak and the agents have gotten restless. That leaves many wondering if America’s Got Talent has still got it, and this season 8 premiere answers with a resounding … maybe. Kind of. It’s hit or miss.

Sharon has been replaced this season by singer Mel B. — better, if not exclusively, known as Scary Spice — and model Heidi Klum. It’s too early to make any grand pronouncements about the new judges, but Mel seems to be a solid addition to the show: as light as the Spice Girls are, they are at least musicians and performers, and Mel brings an invigorating enthusiasm. Heidi is a little bit less of a presence; so far, she’s only really been the butt of Howie and Howard’s jokes, but that may change as she gets more comfortable in the position. With four judges, the contestants now need three yeses to proceed.

[Video] AGT Season 8: Heidi Klum and Mel B Go Gaga Over Shirtless Men >>>

The Auditions Begin…

If the first couple performers look a little familiar, it’s not just because they’re playing into well-worn AGT tropes — they’ve actually been on the national stage before. Our opening act, David Weathers, achieved minor notoriety as a snake handler on Wildboyz and Jackass, and was even famous enough to make headlines the last time his talent landed him in the hospital. He’s followed by a Kentucky country singer named Marty Brown, ostensibly dragged here by his wife to finally live out his dream. You’d never know it from the show, but he was actually a major label, Billboard country-charting songwriter in the ’90s — I have nothing bad to say about the man’s voice, but it’s a little disingenuous to portray him as the old genius next door.

On the other end of the corporate favor spectrum, we have an offensively stupid crop of so-called avant-garde contestants. Worst among them is the Gaga-inspired “dancer” Mew, who neither impresses nor amuses with her intentionally bad monster stomp and exaggeratedly oblivious persona. There are two possibilities with her: she is either a very silly and naive person trying her best or, far more likely, she’s a college student doing a witless parody of reality show fame or something. It’s like a meta-commentary on how tired and lazy meta-commentary is these days, and it’s depressing to see Howie sadistically keep the act going after everyone else presses their buzzers.

Thankfully, the audition show finally heats up around 40 minutes in, starting with a “body magic” act called Catapult. The modern dance troupe performs an elaborate ballet/shadow puppet routine, telling the story of a diamond heist entirely in silhouette. The routine is creative and polished, but still feels gritty enough to be a passion project — when the troupe leader mentions that everyone in the group has a second job, you believe him. They’re perfect for the show, and they elevate the season opener.

The first big dramatic moment among the judges comes courtesy of Chuck from the Bronx. He eats a bunch of unpeeled eggs, snorts salt, squirts lime juice in his eyes, climbs into a bathtub full of ice and eats the hottest pepper in the world. It’s a strange, sprawling collection of unrelated grade school dares, but it at least gets an interesting reaction out of Howie and Howard: when Howie is once again the sarcastic yes vote, Howard gets him to take a bit of Chuck’s pepper. Howie goes nuts, he pours milk down his throat and a merry time is had by all, except for Chuck who cries silently in pain and is then kicked off the show.

House of the Rising Child Star

In terms of classical talent, the night is owned by a shy, deep-voiced 10-year-old girl named Anna Anyone who’s seen this type of show before has likely built up a tolerance to cute little belt-it-out-like-a-big-person kid acts, but Anna’s solo rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” is really something special, particularly when she hits an emotional high singing “God, I know, I’m one.” She’s followed by another impressive group of studied musicians called the 3penny Chorus and Orchestra, performing a stirring orchestral arrangement of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

Other acts include a throat-singing street musician named Special Head — as Howard says, “I was annoyed with you, I wanted to lock you in a mental institution,” and I’ll stop before he gets to the compliments because he already summed up my opinion — and a comedian/impressionist named Angela, who gains broad favor with the crowd by impersonating Hollywood actresses.

For better or worse, however, the most memorable act of the night is Mr. Tone “The Chief” Rocker, a chubby California rapper who brings the house down with a gloriously idiotic song called “P double O T Y.” This is a gimmick performance done right: Tone makes the joyful announcement that he wants nothing more than to be a one-hit wonder, and gets everyone on their feet with a song that’s certainly no worse than the output of LMFAO and I wouldn’t want to see this joke worn out completely, but I admit that there’s a part of me looking forward to seeing Tone perform again.

[Videos] The One Act to Watch from the America’s Got Talent Premiere

The season 8 premiere is a decided mixed bag: we’ve seen so many reality shows, I tend to wish they’d devote more time to fresh acts like Catapult and less to the worn-out joke contestants. On the other hand, real talent is timeless: it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a kid singer on TV, kids like Anna can still inspire chills. The balance always tips more toward the interesting stuff when the auditions are over, so I’m looking forward to that. Until then, I just hope I don’t have to suffer through another Mew.

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(Image courtesy of NBC)

Ted Kindig

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV