One glaring omission you may notice on this blog (which concentrates so heavily on the variety arts) is an absence of coverage of contemporary television talent shows, though they are the closest thing we have nowadays to televised variety shows (talk shows and sketch comedy shows are quite different beasts entirely). This is because I HATE them, at least the existing ones.
I’ve always detested American Idol, for example with its preferred aesthetics of soulless, high-powered caterwauling and its reality-television ethic of mean-spirited cruelty. I hate the kind of music the show champions, I hate the way the show’s producers prefer it to be performed and I hate the Fascistic way they treat the aspirants who don’t fit their cookie cutter vision. This leaves the one thing I do like about the show: the pleasure of changing the channel away from it.
The same goes for America’s Got Talent. One might think I’d be more inclined to like this one, since it casts its net across all the variety arts and many people I know have been on the show. My objections to the show have more to do with the way it looks, which is horrible. It’s shot on this cavernous, cold, very industrial-looking stage, with an apparent privileging of technology (a million stage lights, fog-machines) over human beings. It looks like a space age abattoir. It looks like if the performer makes one wrong turn they could cut themselves fatally on the set. Then their blood would be digitally washed out to resemble the grey environs, the hue of battleships and Nazi uniforms. I’m also unimpressed by the panel of bumptious celebrity “judges”, most of whom I’ll wager know far less about the various show business disciplines than the contestants they’re weighing in on. I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of this horrible show. Once somebody had it on in their house and I actually walked into another room to avoid having to hear or see it.
So guess who was SO ready to hate Showville? (raises hand) Yup! Me! And I’m writing this blogpost to tell you that contrary to expectation I rather liked it. Everything about the show appears to be conceived contra the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of those other shows. In this one, the hosts actor-comedian Alec Mapa, and dancer Lisette Bustamante visit a different American city each week and organize a talent show at a local venue. The judges are an audience of friends and neighbors from the local community. Mapa and Bustamante are not described as judges but coaches. After an initial round of auditions, they cull a handful of the most promising acts and work with them to enhance their routines, working with what is already there and what the performer hopes to achieve, rather than trying to impose their own visions or some idea of what “the market” wants. The process is respectful and, yes, even gentle, making it a welcome antidote to the bloodbath these shows usually become.
In episode 3 (I somehow missed the first two), the pair visits Walla Walla, Washington, where the contestants range from the promisingly professional, to the lovably clueless. The acts were a tepid folk-rock band of middle-aged people called Bizarre Love Triangle, a Mexican-American break-dancer, a firefighter who wants to be a ventriloquist, and a stand-up comedian. The comedian (Tyrone Collins) was the best of the bunch and actually gigs locally, but the breakdancer Benji won the contest because he got the loudest audience response.Here’s his winning performance:
This is a tradition, as my readers well know, that goes back to vaudeville amateur nights, then enters the modern age through radio and tv shows like Major Bowes Amateur Hour, The Gong Show, etc. Every city used to have its own local televised talent show. When I was a kid, the local one in my area was Community Auditions out of Boston. I was delighted to learn this morning that it was revived in 2007 and is going strong in a new version today.
To me, this kind of programming is one thing that television does well and is an example of the medium’s potential for good. In the case of Showville we get to see a slice of America in each episode. And we root for people who may be eccentric, who may not be juggernauts or “potential industry powerhouses” but who are valuable human beings who each have something interesting to say in their own unique voice. This populist aspect of the format, the diversity, openness and tolerance is what draws me to the variety arts. I sure hope Showville doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid and turn nasty. Right now it’s good and necessary medicine.
Episode four airs tomorrow night. Learn more about Showville at http://www.amctv.com/shows/showville
To learn more about the history of the variety arts, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.