I will admit it, I came to the season premiere of "America's Got Talent" to rip Howard Stern.
But I walk away after two hours with nothing but admiration for Stern and the producers of this potent franchise.
And I'm not simply praising AGT as a slick or skilled production. "America's Got Talent" connects with some of the deepest currents of American life today. For all its sideshow, freakshow silliness and weirdness at times, it also speaks to a huge slice of American life that our politicians don't seem to know or care about one little bit any more as they move from fund raiser to fund raiser and TV studio to soundstage in their cocoons of media and million-dollar isolation from the masses.
You can get a full, blow-by-blow recap of the two-hour season premiere at the Sun's TV Lust blog. I just want to highlight a couple of the moments that resonated with me -- and millions of viewers, I suspect.
Both involved father-daughter acts. The first in Los Angeles was a 25-year-old Latino father, Jorge, and his 7-year-old daughter, Alexa. He played guitar and sang. She stood alongside him with an angelic smile and an oversized bow hanging sideways on her head singing her heart out.
The minute she started wisecracking with Stern after the performance, I knew where I had seen the archetype before: In the film "A Paper Moon." She was little Addie Pray (Tatum O'Neal) and he was her daddy, Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal), and they were trying to get by any way they could in Depression-era America.
Beyond the music, which was OK but not great, this father-daughter duo spoke to the hard economic times that the Democrats and Republicans in Washington seem to spend every day ignoring. But the people in the audience are living it -- and they felt this dad and daughter were living it as well. The two also, of course, spoke to the cherished notion of family through their support of each other.
When Stern, who can be so snarky on radio, started to tell the two how they made him think of his father, the little girl said, "You're not going to cry, are you?"
It was so perfect I suspected some coaching. But who cares if there was.
And Jorge and Alexa were only a warmup for the final act in St. Louis tha brought the house to its feet and filled audience eyes with tears.
This was also an ethnic, minority, father-daughter act, Maurice and Shanice Hayes. They are African-American. He is 62, and she is 18.
They identified themselves as "street performers," with the teen girl explaining how they put their "bucket" out for contributions and then start singing on street corners.
And then, they blew the walls off the theater with their rendition of "You've Got a Friend." The teenager's voice was astounding. Sharon Osbourne, one of the three judges along with Howie Mandel and Stern, called her an "angel."
As street musicians, singing for contributions, they represented the economic uncertainty of American life like no other act on stage all night, and they delivered one of the richest and most resonant moments of the TV season in their person and their performance.
It's impossible not to groan (or grimace) at acts like the one that featured a guy dressed like Aladdin sticking huge sewing needles through his outer cheeks and into his mouth. And a stripper-magician man, who was neither deceptive nor sexy, begged to be mocked. Howie and Howard obliged.
But the currents of American life that those two father-daughter acts tapped Monday night are as deep and profound as anything television has to offer. In fact, I'll take them over the self-referential, pop-culture masturbation on some epsisodes of such revered TV productions as Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men."
Stern definitely softened his act for prime time. But I like it. After 30 years of writing about media, it allowed me to finally appreciate the populist edge and fiercely democratic impulse that drives him. What took NBC so long to figure out how good this guy could be on this summertime marquee show?
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