Loving the Losers of America’s Got Talent

Heather Caliri

When my children watch America’s Got Talent in our living room, I often get sucked in from the kitchen after hearing a strident buzzer signaling doom.

America’s Got Talent has everything: sly magicians, pint-sized Streisands, and an unsettling man in an evening suit who scuttles like a crab. I wish the show drew me in when I heard one of those people performing. But I have to be honest: more often I’m intrigued by someone getting the axe.

Even if you haven’t watched America’s Got Talent, you’ve probably peeked at one of its siblings: American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, or The X Factor. In each, contestants strut their stuff through elimination rounds while judges evaluate talent for a grand prize. AGT’s hook is that it’s a variety show featuring everything from acrobats to zoological impressions.

The show’s other twist is the buzzer. If a judge hates something, they press theirs and a giant red X appears above the stage. Four X marks and you’re out.

The buzzer gets used frequently because the show sprinkles in terrible performances between the amazing ones—not giving away which is which. In one episode, producers played an inspiring montage of a comedian named Sethward before he took the stage. “Whatever happens,” Sethward said in the clip, “I know that … America’s Got Talent is going to transform my life.”

Then he waddled onstage in a mud-colored caterpillar costume and promptly fell over, taking the mic stand with him. Once he struggled to his feet, he affected a terrible German accent a la Pixar’s Heimlich and cried out in mock pain as he “metamorphized.” The audience’s horror only grew as he completed his transformation into a unitard-clad butterfly. Heidi Klum stared at his costume, chagrined. “You have a hole in your stockings,” she said. Onscreen, the producers placed an image of a monarch butterfly over his nether regions. Buzzzzz.

I have to be honest: I’m intrigued by someone getting the axe.

I’d wonder why AGT showcases such terrible acts, except that I come running to watch when I hear that buzzer. Like me, audiences come for the dreadful and stay for the divine—the lemons flavor the dish.

And yet I’m confused by my fascination with the terrible acts because I know just how vulnerable performing is. Growing up, auditions were as normal for me as spelling tests. In high school I even auditioned for Star Search, the Ed McMahon-hosted precursor to AGT. Most of us have stress dreams about school exams, but I dream just as often about forgetting lines, botching choreography, or missing opening night altogether. In real life, I once lost my voice while singing in front of thousands of people. So why in God’s name do I like watching other people bomb?

In a word: drama. Says David O’Connor, a reality show casting director, “Oddballs [and] disasters … make for great TV.” Indeed, American Idol succeeded largely because the show included them. Digging deeper, the lemons provide surprise, variety, and prevent the brilliance of other acts from getting predictable. Laughing in horror at Sethward also hearkens back to booing in Victorian melodramas, when jeering the villain was part of the fun. Even more importantly, the foils provide an immediate narrative arc before the audience has time to invest in the genuine acts.

Even if it plays well, though, my attraction to others’ failure unsettles me. It doesn’t feel like a Christian impulse. Thinking further about the contrast between Jesus’ kingdom and the reign of reality talent shows, I find my anxious dreams are a clue about my own fears. Aren’t all of us eternally and justifiably afraid of falling short? In a way, AGT mainlines that anxiety to draw us in.

In the world of AGT, we sort sheep and goats through exacting merit. It’s easy to laugh at Sethward’s fall from behind our television screen, but in truth most of us would fare about as well as he did on that stage. Every year, the glory of AGT is literally available to only one person, and only deserved by a perfect performance.

In contrast, God’s kingdom expands by generous inclusion. You and I, though falling over onstage, are eagerly invited to share Christ’s glory. Instead of God asking for our brilliance, the Almighty powers our communion completely. In the ultimate narrative arc, God metamorphizes us into shining stars: the blind see, the lame walk, and the hardhearted fall on their knees. And it is a lavish welcome, free for every sorry one of us. AGT works because it’s exclusive. Jesus saves precisely because he’s not.

Watching the show with my daughters, I celebrate that they are inspired by its bold artistry. And as long as I keep my own relative incompetence in mind, even Sethward’s foibles look gutsy. Rather than pretending that he shares nothing in common with me, I’m reminded that we all are bumbling, ridiculous, and hopelessly off key. Instead of me judging these contestants from a distance, I’m invited to marvel at the creative, courageous power God wields in the world.

Topics: TV