It Takes 'Talent' To Kill This Trend

Cole Miller, 21, and harmonica-playing L.D., 12.
Cole Miller, 21, and harmonica-playing L.D., 12. (Nbc Photo: Trae Patton - Trae Patton -- NBC)
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Go ye therefore and be famous for 15 minutes -- or so, approximately, goes the gospel according to Andy Warhol. His prediction that everybody would get his or her quarter-hour in the spotlight -- or, more likely, on television or in a pop-up on the computer screen, may have erred on the side of generosity: Five minutes, not 15, seems a more plausible estimate now.

With the number of available channels exploding exponentially, America's celebrity shortage grows increasingly severe. Stars can't be stamped out on a conveyor belt like creatures concocted at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory -- but almost. And, to mix metaphors further, it turns out there's an audience that will patiently and even avidly watch the sausage being made -- first on Fox's phenomenally popular "American Idol" and now on NBC's shameless and slavish imitation (with some of the same producers involved), "America's Got Talent," airing again tonight at 8 on TV's most pathetically desperate network.

"Talent," hosted by affable Regis Philbin, doesn't draw nearly as many suckers into the tent as "Idol" does, but then "Idol" had three years to grow into a sensation. This year it averaged 30.2 million viewers for its Tuesday night edition and 31.2 million for its Wednesday night installment, when winners from previous nights were announced. The July 5 episode of "America's Got Talent" on NBC pulled in only 12 million viewers, and the following week's show, on July 12, only 11.2 million.

Will the downward trend continue with tonight's show, or will some mysterious factor (the other channels go dead) result in a rebound? Such shows are cheap to produce, what with amateurs providing the "entertainment" and has-beens dominating the panels of "judges" who rule on who stays and who is jettisoned into the horrific void of anonymity. The acts on NBC's show are generally of a much lower quality than Fox's (an embarrassing flip-flop considering that NBC's Johnny Carson and David Letterman used to make jokes about what a lowly fiasco Fox was) and suggest a change of title is in order: "America's Got Talent -- But You Won't Find It Here."

For all the mediocrity religiously poured into it, however, even as resolute a shambles as "America's Got Talent" has managed to produce a moment or two of affecting spontaneity, something to knock a viewer right off his couch. Last week it happened near the end of the two-hour telecast.

The Millers, as they call themselves, are a pair of adolescent brothers, one of whom -- the older and more handsome of the two -- strummed guitar and sang, unmemorably, while the other -- younger, dumpier and more childlike -- played the blazes out of a harmonica, which seems at some point in the past to have become an inseparable part of his physiognomy.

Piers Morgan, the requisite snippy British judge ("Talent's" version of "Idol's" Simon Cowell), issued his verdict on the Millers, telling the harmonica player, "I think you ought to sack your brother" and go solo. The ugly remark elicited an unexpectedly touching response: The little brother, tears in his eyes, hugged his partner and vowed not to break up the act, with the crowd applauding its emotional approval.

It was a tender and seemingly genuine moment, one that almost made sitting through the previous two hours of inanity worth it -- the puppeteer with two unfunny bird marionettes, the scantily clad hula-hoop babe who billed herself as Hoopalicious (wisely keeping her real name concealed), a cute but hokey yodeler (is there still a market for yodelers?) who after an introductory yodel or two turned to the band and barked, "Hit it, guys," as if we'd all been teleported back to, say, 1954 and a Mackless "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour."

"Talent's" early ratings may have been higher, but many of the acts were worse. The early editions of the show supplied that crazy fix of schadenfreude that "American Idol" delivers in its audition phases, when the tone-deaf singers and oblivious klutzes take the stage and perform hilarious exercises in stupefied mortification. Some of the worst of the "Idol" acts have remained in the spotlight longer than a few of the "winners," perhaps partly because their self-delusion takes on a sweet aura of innocence.

On Chuck Barris's masterpiece of kitsch, "The Gong Show," many of the contestants were so showbiz-savvy that they made their performances as bad as possible, playing a kind of mano a mano game with the audience that was funny but slick and packaged. At their ghastly best and worst, though, "Idol" and even "Talent" offer performers who appear truly unaware of how dreadful they are, and while many in the studio audience jeer and boo (they are performers, too), some of us watch at home and can't help being touched as well as tickled by the truly terrible. Our hearts go out to them.

From the look and sound of the opening installments, "America's Got Talent" is that one show too many that has killed many a television trend. It has no charm, it's edited into anarchy, and its so-called judges (also including the vacuous Brandy and frighteningly primitive David Hasselhoff) could hardly be less articulate.

Brandy: "Taylor, you were awesome." Hasselhoff: "You guys did a great, great, great, great, great, great job . . . It was just really great." Morgan: "You are what this show is all about" (sounding exactly like Cowell). There was also a lot of blowing away. "You so blew me away with Godzilla," Hasselhoff told a puppeteer who'd done his version of the monster movie. "I was expecting you to blow us away," Morgan told a juggler. "The first time I saw you, I was completely blown away," Brandy said of a man who dressed dogs in drag.

If only the winds of Burbank would grow strong enough to blow the whole lot of them away, NBC programming executives occasionally crashing into walls.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company