After a 17-day hiatus for the United States to kick the world’s ass in the Olympics, it’s time for everyone to get back to the daily grind of a routine week during the dog days of August. 

But on the bright side, that also means the return of the season’s hottest show. And with 121 medals, pretend robberies and scores of finely-tuned gymnast abs in the rear-view mirror, the third and final group of quarterfinalists is set to hit the Dolby Theatre stage as we inch ever closer to crowning the America’s Got Talent season 11 king or queen.

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Will it be a singer? A magician or a juggler? A contortionist, comedian or acrobat? Yeaahhhhh, it’s probably going to be a singer.

Lineup and Projections

The results have been largely predictable thus far, particularly at the top end of the rankings. Sure, some deserving acts might be cut in the sixth or seventh spots simply to promote another musical act, but there have been no egregious eliminations (even if my heart of hearts was pulling for ThroWings over Sal Valentinetti and Kadie Lynn). 

That trend looks to continue with this batch of performers, as transgender comedian Julia Scotti; comedy juggling duo The Passing Zone (they made the finals in season 1); and singers Brian Justin Crum, Grace VanderWaal and Linkin Bridge all seem like locks. Magician Blake Vogt also impressed in his sole televised appearance, which potentially leaves six acts competing for one spot.

Malevo would seem to have several leather-clad legs up after winning over the crowd, but acrobat Vello Vaher could sneak in with something clever and new. There is also the kid factor to consider, though I’d argue mother-son ballroom dancing duo Alla and Daniel Novikov, middle-school magician Kadan Bart Rockett and potential-star-held-back-by-her-hubby-and-daughter family band Edgar shouldn’t have made it this far in the first place.

That leaves the impressive Ronee Martin, but will there be any votes left for singers? And with six of the 14 acts that have already moved on being of the vocalist variety (Calysta Bevier, Jayna Brown, Kadie Lynn, Laura Bretan, Musicality and Sal), does she even have a shot at the judge save?

But championships aren’t won on paper, and who knows? Everyone could bomb. 

Vello Vaher Leads Off

Nick Cannon has ditched the corn-rowed ponytail and appears to be growing out his curls a bit, and after judge introductions include Heidi’s giant bow and Mel B.’s bizarre shoulder-hung fur scarf, it’s time to kick this pig.

The man who folds himself into a little ball and flies across the stage suspended by his jaw is up first, and the routine is pirate-themed. He hops up and down some stairs on his hands, wiggles his belly and maneuvers his way up to a pull-up bar with a hanging mouthpiece. He clamps down, swings across the stage to some ropes and lowers himself down. It’s a long build-up without a terribly exciting payoff, and Simon offers an X. 

Simon likens it to “a sack on a conveyor belt,” and he thinks the pirate ship was more show than incorporated. Howie praises the originality, Mel B. likes the nuttiness, and Heidi loves the weird. On to the next.

Ronee Martin’s Unfortunate Draw

Maybe being the first singer will benefit Ronee, but I expect that this is the worst possible slot for her to be remembered in, with so many to follow. She thought she’d be famous, and she expected she’d have kids. Those didn’t happen, but now her life is finally beginning at 62. 

It’s a rendition of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” a choice that is both good and bad. It’s spectacular when she opens up, and it shows that she can put her own unique spin on a classic song to make it her own. But there are too many lower-register speak-singing parts, which is a weakness that she could’ve masked with something that’s big from start to finish.

Mel B. praises her inner strength and prowess, while Heidi thanks her for the vocal gift. Simon and Howie both have positive reviews, but they hedge to viewers (“I love you, but America has to vote”) in part because they know the deck is stacked against her.

Kadan Bart Rockett and Brooklyn’s Revenge

His little sister, Brooklyn, has been clamoring for a larger role since he promised to turn her into a princess but instead sawed her in half, and this time, she gets her revenge.

Brooklyn takes four sets of handcuffs to the judges for inspection, and then they latch them onto his wrists before padlocking him in a booth with only a silhouette. She sends a rig of chainsaws into him, the curtain drops and he’s nowhere to be found. He then appears next to the judges, lock undone and handcuffs removed. 

Look, it’s cute. But the magic is nothing crazy, not even curious enough for me to care how they did it. And the jokes are for kids, by kids. I don’t see anyone voting for this or ever paying money to see it. But, yeah, you can hire them to do your kid’s party, and they’ll crush it.

Heidi is a fan of his surprises, but she’s more interested in how they’ll split the million bucks they’ll never have. Simon calls him a real-life Harry Potter and praises their showmanship, Howie commends them for stepping it up and Mel B. loves their magic. Were we watching the same act? Talk about kid gloves.

Linkin Bridge Chases the Dream

The first genuinely-anticipated act is about to perform, and these guys from the bad part of Louisville use music to rise above poverty, negativity and violence. With one member still reeling from the shooting death of his little cousin, they’re doing this for everyone who refuses to give up on a dream.

They sing Elvis Presley/Willie Nelson/300 other people’s “Always On My Mind,” and as much as I love these guys and the emotion they pour into every note, the harmonies are not quite as on point as usual. There are highlights for sure, and they have a great chance to make it on personality and potential, but the rawness, power and likability are better than the vocals. 

Simon’s not a fan of the song choice and doesn’t think it went particularly well until the killer note at the end, but he hopes they go through and would vote for them himself. Howie is a fan, and he wants them to know they’re beautiful people. Mel B. is all about the harmonies, and she loves everything about it. No time for Heidi.

Alla and Daniel Dance Across Generations

Both mother and son are world champions, but it’s wife and husband who show off all their trophies in the studio they own. Little Daniel once asked his mom to teach him, and the rest is AGT history. 

This time, they’re dancing to DNCE’s “Cake By the Ocean” with a slew of back-up dancers who completely distract and detract from the couple that we are supposed to be focused on. It’s frantic and disjointed, and Howie slams on his buzzer.

He criticizes them for doing the exact same moves with different staging, and the third strike means they’re out, as far as he’s concerned. Mel B. admits that she wanted more packed in (and not more people), but it certainly wasn’t buzz-worthy. Heidi thinks they’re sweet, and Simon suggests that Daniel dump his mom and move forward on his own.

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Blake Vogt isn’t Allergic to Fame

Blake grew up among farmers in Indiana, but he knew early on that tilling the earth wasn’t in his future. He nearly died when he was 3, and blood tests showed he has 109 different allergies. He couldn’t go outside because he’s essentially a bubble boy, so he was all magic all the time. And here are the fruits of his labor.

A box hangs above the stage, and he has an audience member point to another audience member who picks a random bird (blue jay). From the box drops an egg, which he hands to Simon. The other three judges then narrow down a deck of cards to the queen of diamonds, and Simon cracks open the egg to reveal said card. Then the box above the stage opens, blue feathers fall from the sky and “blue jay” is written on the inside. 

It’s an amazing trick and spectacular presentation and showmanship, but side note: I am tired of the “That would’ve been cool” joke after implying that some impossible magic was about to be done. It’s probably a pacing technique, but if what you’re actually doing is impossible enough, don’t distract me with what you aren’t doing. 

Mel B. is confused and speechless, Heidi says Blake always delivers, Simon is flabbergasted and Howie appreciates the allergy references in comparison to other backstories.

Editorial note: As pointed out by a reader, you can also file Blake under the heading “disingenuous backstory.” The following is from Blake’s website:

“Blake Vogt is one of the most respected magicians in the industry and has created magic for David Copperfield, David Blaine, Dynamo, along with many other top magicians around the world. He has also created visual elements for Avicii, Pharrell and Kanye West as well as lent his expertise to movies such as Now You See Me 1 & 2,  and Marvel’s Ant Man. TV highlights include performing on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Wizard Wars on Syfy and Fox’s 2015 New Year’s Eve Special.”

So not exactly an undiscovered noob.

You’ve Got a Friend in Edgar

The mom in the group was a record label Christian artist back in the day, but she got dropped when she got preggers. Now she’s attempting to reclaim fame with her husband and daughter, but they haven’t been on the same level as her thus far. And I hate to say it, but the youngest is the weak link.

They’re doing a rendition of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and as usual, Nikki Leonti blows the others out of the water. It works more so than usual, though, with an emphasis on her as a frontwoman and staggered solos instead of an emphasis on blending everyone together. It’s easily their best and the first time I’ve viewed them as anything more than a throwaway. But Nikki is the star. 

Heidi offers a hearty “The family that sings together wins together,” while Simon wants to bottle it as his happiness because it was fantastic and his favorite of the night. Howie believes they elevated their game, and Mel B. calls it spot-on and well-played.

Julia Scotti is Transformative

Julia used to be Rick Scotti, an award-winning comedian, before taking a years-long break during her transition. As such, she’s a seasoned pro who was a headliner before any of this, to the point where I assumed she was an invited audition who we weren’t going to see again. 

The material is funny enough, even if I don’t have any laugh-out-loud moments, but the stage presence and delivery are perfection. Like I said, she’s a consummate professional who is no stranger to a big stage. I think she’s safe, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t get as many votes as she deserves.

The judges are all big fans, and Howie praises her for owning her material and predicts that this stint will earn her a sitcom. Mel B. pleads with America to vote.

Brian Justin Crum Exceeds Expectations

This guy is one of the best vocalists in AGT history, but first, we need to take a trip back through his troubled childhood because when you’re young, they don’t teach you that there’s life after high school and life after being bullied — even though that’s exactly what they teach you. Imagine if your guidance counselor was like, “I know it’s rough right now, but you must realize that this is it. Nowhere to go from here.” 

He’s taking a break from Broadway and national tours to blow us away with a performance of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” and it is, in two words, f***ing spectacular. It’s right up there with everything Adam Lambert did on American Idol, and we can probably give him the title right now. He’s just that good, and he’d still be this amazing even if he divulged all his theater experience and desire to branch out. That being said, it’s the best performance of the season.

The judges echo everything I just typed, only without the snark. They’re classier than me because they get paid millions of dollars, and they can afford fluffy shoulder scarves made of fur. And V-neck T-shirts.

Malevo Brings the Heat

Malevo means “outlaw,” “gunslinger” and “renegade,” and women go nuts when they dance Malambo. They got into the combination of clogging, drumming and whip swinging as a path to a better future, and they’re a bit of a wildcard after their last performance won even me over.

This one, however, is more of the same, and it lacks the explosive energy that drew me in last time. There’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and honestly, I’m bored. But the judges and audience give them a standing ovation, so what do I know?

Mel lets out a shriek like a tween stumbling across a member of One Direction at the mall, and she can’t contain herself over their brilliance. Heidi finds them sizzling hot, and she sees this as a Vegas show that Mel promises to attend. Simon claims to only have one word — “outstanding” — but he apparently has several others as he compares them to Riverdance and predicts that they’ll be headlining within two years. 

The Passing Zone Chases the Past … and Balls

These two guys hope to be world-famous jugglers, and they’ve been working together for more than two decades. And this time, they promise to incorporate as many as three judges. Do people just not remember them from season 1? I don’t, but that’s why we have the Internet. Shouldn’t it at least be mentioned? 

They pretend to hit each other with bowling balls that are actually rubber before launching into their main trick: juggling people. They summon Howie, Heidi and Mel as the world’s first “jugglenauts,” suspend them from the ceiling and swing them back and forth without slamming into each other. Then, for good measure, they toss giant balls between them. 

It’s one of the weirdest things Simon has ever seen, but he’d like more chance of death involving his panel-mates next time. I don’t know if it was their most impressive routine, even though it’s the most memorable, but it’s interesting how you can tell which acts are on a different level when compared to the competition. I don’t care how good a performance Alla and Daniel or Kadan Bart Rockett might have. Their best is below these guys’ worst.

Grace VanderWaal Scores the Pimp Spot

She’s a 12-year-old girl from New York who enjoys normal 12-year-old girl stuff, but that all changes when she picks up a ukulele and starts singing. She gets nervous before every performance, her mom tells us, but the (palpable and visible) anxiety eases once she starts. I think one of the most endearing qualities about her, in addition to her general likability and talent, is the lack of an emotional backstory.

She’s singing an original song she wrote about her sister that Google tells me is called “I’ll Hold Your Hand,” and her voice is polished beyond her years. She’s like a combination of Christina Perri, Zooey Deschanel and every band on the Juno soundtrack all rolled up into a pre-teen, and it could very well be her and Brian Justin Crum in the final two.

Simon believes Grace’s imperfections are what make her perfect because she’s sweet, charming and real, and he predicts that we will look back years from now and remember this as the first time we heard her sing live. Heidi calls her one in a million, and Mel B. wants to cuddle her and her distinctive voice in order to build her confidence. Howie calls her his golden buzzer in life, and he predicts she’ll be bigger than Taylor Swift? Okay, c’mon.

Time to Vote

My initial expectations held true for the most part, with Julia Scotti, The Passing Zone, Brian Justin Crum, Blake Vogt and Grace VanderWaal all locks to advance. Linkin Bridge is the only one that sung themselves into a little bit of trouble, but I expect they’ll be safe. 

Likewise, Vello Vaher, Alla and Daniel, and Kadan Bart Rockett are easy cuts, while poor Ronee Martin simply can’t keep up with the other singers. Edgar did the most to improve their positioning and has to be in the semifinals, but will that come at the expense of Malevo? I’m not on the bandwagon, but many seem to love them. And if not them, then who? The Passing Zone?

What is clear is that the upper echelon of performers are clearly separating themselves from the pack, showing a level of professionalism, poise and obvious star quality that is unparalleled. And in some cases, it’s not even close. 

Which acts were your favorites and who let you down? Who do you predict will be heading home and who will we be seeing again? Finally, which of these acts do you think has the best chance to win the whole thing? 

Check back for the results, and get ready for Michael Phelps! Uh, I mean, is he going to do anything? Are they going to make him swim? Or are we supposed to tune in simply because he’ll be sitting in a seat? I at least expect the “Phelps Face” when an act he likes goes home. It’s the least he can do after that one second-place finish, right?

America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays at 8pm and Wednesdays at 9pm on NBC.

(Image and videos courtesy of NBC)

Bill King

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

Emmy-winning news producer & former BuddyTV blogger. Lover of Philly sports, Ned, Zoe, Liam and Delaine…not in that order