Tuesday, September 01, 2015




Bill King
Contributing Writer, BuddyTV
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The semifinal round of the 10th anniversary season of America's Got Talent is finally here, and after more than three months and two dozen episodes, we have whittled the field of hundreds of hopefuls down to 21 (plus one) potential million-dollar acts.

But before the bright lights of Las Vegas beckon, these performers must first brave the competition at Radio City Music Hall to survive at least two more weeks in their quest for fame, fortune and not needing a day job. Ahhhh, the American dream.

With seven acts advancing from each of the three quarterfinal shows, the judges were tasked with selecting that final wildcard to round out the bunch (why they didn't pick three to give us a Top 24 I have no idea, but I guess the previous round loses some oomph if two-thirds of all the acts go through), and as is par for the course, they did a terrible job.

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Metal Mulisha Rides Again

Look, I have nothing against Metal Mulisha Fitz Army, and in fact, I've been a big fan of them all along. I ranked them third among their group and incorrectly predicted that they'd easily advance this far all on their own, even asking during the recap if they could be the first extreme act to win the whole thing.

But therein lies the problem. It was a subpar night of talent and they were in the upper tier, and yet they couldn't make it into the top eight? That means, at best, only three acts out of 12 garnered fewer votes. And considering that crap set Gary Vider put together was enough to get him through, what hope do the Motocross riders have, no matter how dangerous and cool their tricks are?

I would have much rather seen Freckled Sky, which was close to reaching its potential but hadn't yet figured out how to structure a perfect mix of special effects, dance and story. Voters love that type of act, but they don't seem to have any idea where stunt jumpers fit in. Who knows, though? Maybe Metal Mulisha will prove me wrong, I'll get back on the bandwagon and then America will prove me wrong as well. After all, my prognostication record is probably on par with Punxsutawney Phil's.

Lineup and Projections

The illustrious group of 11 from which you will be choosing is singer and magician heavy, with more than half of the acts coming from said skill sets. And that means the outliers -- namely Drew Lynch and Siro-A (see above for my Metal Mulisha assessment) -- get an added boost to help them stand out.

Derek Hughes and Oz Pearlman are similar but different enough that they could both move on if they impress, though Oz has some credibility to re-earn after giving away his last trick. I hope for your sake that you didn't notice the slip-up because it puts a huge damper on the suspension of reality needed to buy into illusion.

The rest of the field is crowded with musicians, but I'd give The CraigLewis Band and Samantha Johnson the early leg up, leaving room for one of Arielle Baril, Ira, Benton Blount and The Mountain Faith Band to break out.

I'm not sure I see a winner in this group, but that's why they play the games, folks. Who do you see stepping up and which acts probably shouldn't have made it this far? Keep the comments coming, and let's find out who's bringing their Siro-A game.

The Live Blog Begins Now

Nick Cannon is rocking his "There's no place like home" kicks as he introduces the judges, who are already waiting in the seats. Only five of these 11 acts will be advancing to the Top 10, so let's get to it.

The fight for the finals begins, and we're kicking things off with puppets.

Ira Looks to Bring Back the Comedy

Since his less-than-stellar quarterfinal routine was heavy on song and light on skit, Ira's mom is whipping him into shape and giving him a makeover. And if the performance is half as funny as the intro, this little dude might be back.

It's the story of how Mr. and Mrs. Ira met, with the truth embellished to make for a more dramatic scene (which includes a love triangle). It starts off with some clever shtick and digs at Mel B. and Howie, and then it launches a puppet-acted version of "Copacabana." It's not unexpected since the comedy is clearly the strength (the vocals initially came as a pleasant surprise, but the novelty has worn off), but the big musical number pales to the jokes, and Howard hits his buzzer. This could be a big variety-hour act that mixes the skit with the song, but in short spurts, it's hard to build momentum.

Howard criticizes them for doing the same thing in every performance, and he predicts their AGT time is done. Mel B. is split but thinks they're adorable, while Howie loves the combination of all the family-friendly fun. Heidi wishes them luck, but she expects they'll have a tough time getting through.

Ira quips that they just won two tickets to the Dunkin' Save. If he's lucky.

Mountain Faith Band is Numb in the Facial Region

The small-town blue grass group, who at this point we all know work together in a tire shop, continues to prove me wrong, much to the delight of some viewers. They made it through based on their brilliant song choice, so we'll see if they can pull off something as catchy this time around.

It's The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face," and it's exactly like their other performances. So if you love it, you love this. But if you don't, same old, same old. And this wasn't as strong a pick because it doesn't instantly make everyone sing and bob along. Seriously, even my 3-year-old niece loves "Shut Up and Dance." She knows all the words and she barely remembers the alphabet.

For Howie, it needs to be more harmonies than solos, and this one was Branson instead of Radio City. Howard agrees, pointing out that they lack a big moment. Heidi saw their limitations, while Mel B. bashes the song selection but loves what they bring to the table.

You Can't Kill the Metal Mulisha

The judges brought these guys back because of the danger element, or, as I heard it, we need a pre-recorded segment in case something goes wrong with the live stuff. But the guys are grateful for another chance, and while they were sure they were advancing, they know they need to up their game even further to have a chance now. And they start by explaining exactly how and why the act is dangerous during their intro.

It's the same location as last time, only at night and with fire shooting into the sky with every trick they do. It ends with one guy lighting himself on fire before doing a midair flip and landing with an explosion. I don't know if any of the tricks are new, and I'm not sure I'd be able to tell anyway, but I'd be shocked if waiting until dusk and adding some fire is going to sway anyone.

Howard doesn't believe America will vote for them, but he had to bring them back just to give them the exposure they deserve. Heidi wants to punch them for risking their lives, Mel B. again applauds them for not dying and Howie says they put the "wild" in wildcard.

Samantha Johnson is Vegas Dreaming

She hit a bit of a snag, ending up in the competition for the Dunkin' Save, last time after putting together one of the top performances of the night with "California Dreamin'." And so her dream lives on, even though she's feeling intimidated by what she's about to attempt.

She's also singing a song by The Weeknd, which kind of rubs me the wrong way right off the bat, but it's pretty great. Her rendition of "Earned It," from Fifty Shades of Grey, is on point vocally outside of a pitchy spot or two, and I like the way she's filled the stage with musicians while also leaving a clear aisle for herself down the middle. I don't know yet if I think she's safe, but it's far and away the best we've seen.

It was the perfect build-up for Heidi and unleashed at exactly the right moment, while Mel B. applauds her for making it her own even though it's not a song that shows off a lot of range. Howie congratulates her for taking things to a different level, and Howard believes she had multiple moments.

Derek Hughes Puts Children to Sleep

He's missing his kids' first day of school to be here, but it's family that makes the long days and time away from home worthwhile. There's no 9-to-5 in the life of a magician, and winning this thing will give him a chance to do what he loves and be with his children every day, and that would be living the dream.

Derek saunters on stage in his PJs, and since his boys are headed to bed in California (at 5:45pm?), he's going to read them a bedtime story. He tells his own version of Humpty Dumpty, and other than a few egg jokes, it goes on for a solid minute or two without anything cool happening. Then he tears up the paper book, crumples it into a ball and opens it up to reveal that it's been reassembled.

It's a cute trick, self-written poem and premise, but is this the time to slow it down instead of amping it up? It took so long to not really go anywhere.

Mel B. felt it was a bit sleepy, which is the intention since it's a bedtime story. Derek interrupts to explain that during a full evening, he'd need pacers, and this would be another facet of his act. Howie calls it wonderful and beautiful, and he appreciates the artistry. Howard thinks it was risky to show this side of himself but that Derek proved he has range, while Heidi proclaims, "You've done it again!"

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Drew Lynch Tickles Your Funny Bone

He got a golden buzzer from Howie after his audition, and getting through the quarterfinals was like America giving him a golden buzzer. He gains strength by showing his vulnerability, and he's showing people with disabilities around the world that they can still make their dreams a reality. And he wants to prove he belongs on the big stage.

His set is about what phone conversations are like for him, mainly that people think he's a woman and that there's a bad connection. "So it's like I have Sprint," he says, and I legitimately laugh out loud. Then it's a back-and-forth with a phone company operator, and there's a few funny lines, but it's nothing amazing and takes too long to pay off. It doesn't matter, though, because he's charismatic, likable and has all the emotional and inspirational backstory you need.

Howie gives him a standing ovation and praises his strength, while Heidi loves that he laughs at himself and finds him hilarious. Howard is rooting for him and enjoys watching him, but he doesn't like Drew's nervous laughter (I happen to agree) and wants him to have the confidence to just do his material because the giggling throws things off. Drew promises to be less funny so that he doesn't laugh at himself.

Mel B. wants him to have more time so that he can tell more jokes, and he responds that he can do an hour show with 10 minutes of material. Like I said, he's safe.

The CraigLewis Band Sings for Your Votes

The next musical act to hit the stage are fan favorites The CraigLewis Band, who have both received a golden buzzer and been the turnaround act on a night that was trudging along. They've been best friends for years, and they're doing this for their moms.

Their effort to take it to another level involves Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," and it's full of goosebump-inducing harmonies and huge notes. These guys are on a different planet from the rest of the competition thus far, and they simply blast it out of the ballpark. Even Howard gives them a standing ovation.

Howard came on this show to find superstars, and these guys are everything rolled up into one. Heidi calls them a dynamic duo, and she appreciates that this was a stripped-down performance that focused on them. Mel B. calls them amazing singers, but this one was lacking, and she was waiting for a moment that never materialized. Howie brings it back to the positive, loving everything about it.

Can Oz Pearlman Hide the Magic?

Oz claims that in addition to mind reading, he also has a passion for extreme marathoning. It pushes the body to the extreme, and it gives him the same feeling as when he's on stage. And he can see the finish line.

He brings Howard and Heidi up to help him drink some water, beer, OJ, cola and wine. Howard stands behind the table with the labeled paper cups, while Heidi covers Oz's eyes. Howard drinks various liquids, and Oz correctly points out each one even though he can't see anything. He ends the trick by having Mel and Howie think of any drink in their heads, and he identifies those as well.

He's back, ladies and gents, though I wish I could say it's all there for me. I know he's blowing people's minds, but the curtain has been pulled back. And for me, I need more time to buy in again. But I get why the judges love him.

Benton Blount Tries to Overcome

He was overwhelmed the first time he hit the Radio City Music Hall stage, so he looks to his family to provide him strength. Since his last performance, the couple learned they're adding to the family, and with his wife serving as the main breadwinner, turning his passion into a career is all that much more important.

He's singing Rachel Platten's "Fight Song," and the first few bars are just rough. It doesn't get a whole lot better when it comes to key and pitch, and it's a shame because he's such a likable guy, and the talent and vocal ability are there. It seems like he's struggling to overcome nerves, but there are some nice points. Still, I think this is the type of song that would have served Mountain Faith Band similar to "Shut Up and Dance." Not the right register for Benton, though, and he may be better suited to smaller venues.

Heidi calls it the perfect song that she hopes carries him into the finals, but Mel B. doesn't think it was the right choice. Howie appreciates it in the context of Benton's life, but he sounds less than optimistic about Benton advancing. Howard likes everything about Benton, but he's not sure the big man did enough.

Siro-A Brings Imagination to Life

These guys all went to high school together, and they literally make their wildest dreams a reality. The things they come up with are visually stunning, and their only limitation is the boundaries of their imaginations. My only criticism of them has been that they're more pre-production than actual live movement, and anyone can pop out from behind a screen at the right time. But no one else seems bothered by that, so it might be time to let it go.

It's another brilliant spectacle with an indecipherable mix of real and interactive projection, but while I have nothing bad to say, it doesn't blow me away. I know I'm in the minority, and it's definitely one of the best of the night, but I'm not as wowed as I need to be to 100% get behind them. It's just not my cup of tea, I guess.

Mel B. can't tell the difference between what's pretend and what's actually happening in front of her, but she was entertained and dubs them serious contenders. Heidi can't get enough, Howard makes a Donald Trump joke and Howie learns praise words in Japanese to repeat back to them.

Arielle Baril Gets a Surprising Pimp Spot

The 12-year-old opera singer is the youngest remaining contestant, and I'm a bit shocked she's closing out the show. She didn't strike me as a serious contender for the finals, but they must think otherwise of this performance if they're giving her the pimp spot.

She's got everything AGT opera performances have become known for, i.e. laser beams and a live orchestra. The only thing she's missing is the fog. It's a brilliant vocal performance, and it's impossible to believe she's so young, but I don't know if it has the punch it needs to leapfrog some of the other singers. It's 100% solid, but it's not a moment. It's going to be close, though, and the final note is exquisite.

Heidi believes Arielle checks off all the boxes of a winning act, and while Mel B. thinks she's amazing, she advises her to be more careful of her pacing and breathing. Howie praises her raw ability and the position she's put herself in, and then he says a bunch of stuff that dances around the fact that he doesn't think she's going forward. Howard closes his eyes when Arielle sings, and he can't believe her age. She exemplifies everything AGT is about for him, and it was a great end to a spectacular night.

You're Up, America!

That's it for the first group of 11, and now it's up to you to vote for your favorites. Who won the night and which acts do you predict will advance to the finals? Also, who let you down? You know, other than poor Ira.

For me, who should and who will go home are entirely different. The worthy acts include The CraigLewis Band, Siro-A, Samantha Johnson, Oz Pearlman, Arielle Baril, Derek Hughes and Drew Lynch. But only five can move forward.

If I had my druthers, it'd be Arielle Baril and Drew Lynch who wouldn't make the cut, but I predict at least one will. And with Drew in the finals, it would make life a bit more difficult for Derek Hughes and his risky decision to go small and storyful.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section, and then tune in Wednesday for a special performance by The Illusionists, a lot of filler and the naming of our first five finalists. Now pick up the phone and end the blue grass nonsense!



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


(Image and videos courtesy of NBC)



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