Years from now when historians look back at the coronavirus pandemic in the US, they'd be well-served to watch the 15th season of America's Got Talent. Not only is AGT the highest rated show on TV in this moment, but it's served as a unique window to the progression of the pandemic, with the season's earliest episodes being taped just as the spread of the virus began shutting down the country this past March.
Throughout, AGT has delivered its usual buffet of talent show acts — from dancers and singers to dog trainers and folks who get shot out of cannons — even after the restrictions created by COVID-19 stripped its more recent episodes of the usual hoopla. In the final audition round, the talent either performed for the judges in an empty theater or via Zoom calls, without the usual screaming audience. As the show returns tonight for a one-of-a-kind Judge Cuts episode, the changes will be even more drastic, with the production relocated to a new drive-in theater-inspired outdoor venue, where the judges will sit six feet apart as they watch remotely-shot performances on a giant screen. Except for host Terry Crews, there will be nobody else around — only Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum and Howie Mandel, trying to decide who will advance to next month’s live rounds.
The show’s producers say that the end result will give viewers a much more comprehensive look at how the judge cuts are made. “You’re going to see the process,” explains executive producer Sam Donnelly. “You’re going to see how the judges genuinely do review all the acts that they said yes to. You're going to see the way they talk about the people they're not necessarily sure about. You’re going to see them have those discussions, and we don't normally get into that.”
Viewers will also see how much “quarantine filming” has changed in just a few months. There will be 10 acts performing remotely tonight, but thanks to recent changes in social distancing regulations, the show was able to send a small crew to each performer’s home. That’s a huge step up from having people record themselves on their phones, and it allows the performances to have a more cinematic feel. When singer Shaquira McGrath performs in her backyard, for instance (below), her segment has the look of a moody music video instead of a DIY clip.
“Because we were able to send out those crews, you do get a feeling of the AGT that you’re used to seeing,” says executive producer Jason Raff. “And if we hadn’t had that option, this round would’ve been very different. One of the acts is a danger act that's doing something ridiculously dangerous with crossbows. You couldn't quite capture that on Zoom.”
Raff and Donnelly prepared for many different versions of the Judge Cuts episode. With regulations changing almost every day, even their contingency plans needed contingency plans. That’s also why they can’t yet say how next month’s live rounds are going to work. “We have dozens of plans,” says Raff. “A lot of our time is spent coming up with scenarios for what might happen tomorrow.”
All that brainstorming may actually be good for the show. “We’ve been able to do things that we wouldn't have thought of doing previously,” says Donnelly. “That's quite invigorating.”
Those Zoom auditions, for instance, never would have made it on the air before. Normally, it’s just the producing team that sees the contestants in such a low-fi environment. “But there’s something nice about showing that to the audience,” Donnelly says. “When people submit their auditions on tape, sometimes what's really charming about them is seeing them in their own home environment. We see people audition with their dogs in the backyard. That’s where [the producing team] starts to have a relationship with them.”
Now that viewers have had the opportunity to see performers in such relatable settings, it might be even more satisfying to watch them progress through the competition. It might feel like watching a friend make the mind-boggling journey from her living room to national television.
“Sam and I see the acts in this very raw state,” says Raff. “We see the acts in these audition rooms that are sometimes in the middle of nowhere, and within six months, they're at the Dolby Theatre on live TV being seen by millions of people. So this year, you're seeing a little bit of what our lives are like with the raw auditions. And then one of those acts that you saw doing a Zoom audition might be crowned a winner. It's wild.”
Tonight’s special two-hour Judge Cuts episode airs on NBC at 8:00 PM ET.
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Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.