The America’s Got Talent train rolled back into town with a new engineer at the helm, but let’s be honest, the premiere episode was short on contenders and long on Simon Cowell.
The kickoff to season 11 was all about the sardonic Brit Wit’s return to American television — which ironically means none of the four AGT judges is actually American — and the new father seemed like a more laid-back and friendly version of the mean old curmudgeon we grew to love on American Idol.
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It was more refreshing than anticipated, though, as Simon himself is apparently ready to move past all the tabloid fodder and focus on that which makes him feel important — discovering talent and making sure people who lack it are properly notified. He’s just happy to be here at this point, folks.
But while episode one featured some quality acts, only five stood out as being a cut above the rest. And, unfortunately, despite likability and sincere backstories, two of them rely on singing, which stacks the deck against them from the beginning.
That leaves the Clairvoyants, the projection dancer (if you want to call it dancing) and whatever you make of Tape Face, so I think we can expect a few more standouts in the second go-round. Let’s get to the action.
Kicking things off are mother and 8-year-old son ballroom dancing team Alla and Daniel, and even though she’s hot and he’s adorable, the overall effect is as endearing as it is creepy. I have to lean towards cute, though, because I imagine if Daniel (Danie for short, apparently) reads this recap, he’d have no idea how there could be any other interpretation. And as for the dancing, he might be better than her.
Jonathan Nosan is a 47-year-old dude who looks like an accountant and owns a beagle, but he feels like there’s a performer trapped inside. He dusts off his shoes, cues the music and begins a contortive, interpretive dance to The Weeknd’s “Earned It.” I’ll admit, I only like the bendy stuff when it’s a half-nekked lady doing the moves, but Jonathan is quite the flexible gentleman. I imagine he fits nicely in a small box. Mel B. claims she was “literally floored,” and perhaps she is also a contortionist seeing as how she never left her seat.
Next up is Musicality, a choir of public school kids from the south side of Chicago who rehearse in a stairwell. They’re scared to leave their homes at night, but they aren’t afraid of screwing up with the nation watching. There has never been a choir with a legit chance of winning this thing (or that I’ve really enjoyed, to be honest), but you can’t fault the effort. They do a spectacular job of balancing the backup harmonies with the soloists, and it’s goosebumps for days. They seem more like a singing group than a choir (i.e. no sixth-grade risers to stand on), but it’s unlikely that will make a big difference in the end. Still, love ’em.
After Howie and Simon bond with their kids in the green room, it’s time for a family affair. Nikki Leonti was a Christian artist with a record deal who lost everything when she got pregnant at 18, and now she performs under the name Edgar with her new husband and the now 15-year-old Jaslyn. The daughter is a little raw, but the others come through like seasoned professionals (because they are, and I’ll let Yahoo explain what NBC doesn’t). Third chances, y’all!
Malevo is a bunch of guys who claim to be the Magic Mikes of Argentina, known by their signature black leather boots, open shirts and carefully coiffed hair (can you coif a perm?). They’re a rhythmic drum group, and while it’s fine, it’s like taking eight poor man’s Ricky Martins, making them matadors and giving them drums. They transition from drum beating to clogging, followed by all of them twirling whips. The audience and judges go absolutely bonkers, but I think they’re better suited to hotel gigs in tropical locations.
D.J. Demers is a 30-year-old Canadian comedian who is almost entirely deaf and comes complete with hearing aids, and you have to wonder if he was inspired by Drew Lynch. His set seems like it’s unraveling, and I’m not sure if it’s improvisation that saves it, but he nails a few decent one-liners to win back the crowd. I doubt he can go the distance, but he’s likable and inspiring.
At 57, Gary Sladek is the self-proclaimed oldest daredevil acrobatic hand balancer in America. He fell in love with gymnastics as a child, and all these years later, he’s still kicking it old-school, Long Island-style. He stacks a bunch of chairs on a table — and they don’t click together — and then hand and regular balances on top of them. It ends with a crazy handstand on, like, 10 chairs at the peak height of the stage, and it was gut-wrenching to watch on TV. I can’t imagine how nerve-racking it’d be in person.
Mason Bumba does a killer flipping karate routine, Tia Simone rocks the crap out of Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood,” and jacked-up Jon Call does a split between two metal chairs while lifting weights before employing Heidi Klum as his dumbbell. Yes, yes and more yes.
Next up is a quintet of female dancers called Elevenplay who interact with a couple dozen miniature drones with blinking lights that hover about the stage. I have no idea which choreography is trickier to pull off, but I’ve certainly never seen anything like it. It’s incredibly innovative, and it could already be its own show.
The final performance of the night goes to 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal, who loves to sing and is best friends with her 15-year-old blue-haired sister Olivia. She’s performing an original song she wrote about herself, and she’s a quirky and cool little Ingrid Michaelson clone. Even Simon gives her a standing ovation before dubbing her the next Taylor Swift, and then it’s golden buzzer time, courtesy of Howie Mandel. Even though singers can’t win anymore, she started off by pointing out that miracles can happen. So you never know…
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Les Bunheads claim to be professional ballerinas from Russia, but it’s actually Three Stooges slapstick as they pretend beat the crap out of each other on stage. Cue the montage.
A less funny funny version of Dustin’s Dojo involves the karate master hitting his assistant in the groin a bunch of times.
Violin Monster refuses to tell Simon his real name before playing the violin in a monster costume.
It culminates with Tita, a 63-year-old laugh coach from Seattle who works at hospitals, has an infectious cackle and makes everyone happy. The judges are all smiles as she emerges, and then she demonstrates some of the apparent 500 different varieties of laughter. She brings joy to the world, but four X’s to AGT.
Danny Palumbo is a 30-year-old stand-up comedian performing in front of his largest crowd to date, and he tells jokes that aren’t funny about his relationship with his mother. His first few jokes are met with silence, prompting Simon to drop the X, and it’s actually downhill from there. Like, audience members actually spring from the seats with their arms flailing in and out of X-form downhill. He also has to precede the above-mentioned D.J. Demers as the bombing comedian to contrast his success (and possibly make D.J. appear funnier by comparison).
This episode’s off-the-wall performance comes courtesy of John Hetlinger, a frail-looking 82-year-old former Navy pilot and aerospace engineer who discovered karaoke in retirement while taking cruises with his wife. But then he starts screaming, “Let the bodies hit the floor,” launching into a head-banging heavy metal rendition of Drowning Pool’s “Bodies.” It’s unexpected, slightly terrifying and, despite Heidi’s no, we’ll see it again if he doesn’t succumb to all that inner rage ahead of his next time on stage.
And that’s it for our second audition episode, with my contenders clearly marked in their own section. From that group, though, I’ve got my eyes on Tia Simone, Elevenplay and little Grace. I’m still not convinced a singer can return to glory on this stage, but compared to the competition thus far, they’re at the head of the class.
Who were your favorites? Who surprised you? And who do you think has the best chance to go the furthest? The season 11 journey is just getting started, so buckle you safety belt and recline that chair. It’s going to be a long ride.
America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays at 8pm on NBC.
(Image and videos courtesy of NBC)