'AGT' goes live without injured Simon Cowell, without an audience — and with a surprising new judge


If the year 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen — and probably will. Judge Howie Mandel said as much at the top of America’s Got Talent quarterfinals episode this Tuesday. After all, this AGT season has already struggled to continue apace. First, judge Heidi Klum had to sit out some of the audition tapings when she fell ill and producers feared that she had COVID-19 (thankfully, she tested negative). Then the auditions were temporarily halted due to coronavirus concerns. And then, when production resumed, it was either remote or without a live audience. And that’s aside from other Season 15 setbacks, like ousted former judge Gabrielle Union’s discrimination complaint or host Terry Crews coming under fire for that “black supremacy” tweet.

Finally, this week it was time for the AGT live shows… but then, main judge Simon Cowell broke his back in an electric bike crash over the weekend, and had to undergo a six-hour operation that included the insertion of a metal rod. This of course meant that he could not appear on the show this Tuesday.

But leave it to our nation’s greatest American heroine to come to the rescue. “Simon Cowell had an accident over the weekend and he can't be here tonight, but Simon, we are sending lots of AGT love and our best wishes and we hope to see you soon,” Terry announced Tuesday. “And standing in for Simon tonight, we are psyched to have a true superstar... Miss Kelly Clarkson!”

Kelly is of course no stranger to talent TV show judging, having occupied a red chair on another NBC competition, The Voice, for five straight seasons now. But what a full-circle moment it was for her to fill the chair of Simon Cowell, the man who first judged her (and sometimes even judged her a bit harshly) on the inaugural season of American Idol in 2002.

“I have waited years for this. I love Simon, but I'm getting really used to this chair, buddy. I'm just saying, take your time. I could use another job,” Kelly joked. She seemed to be relishing her new role, even posting her best attempt at a brash, British-accented Simon impersonation on Instagram. However, she did note more seriously, “I hope he feels better. I love him — that’s why I didn’t mind stepping in for the show.”

Simon wasn’t the only one not filling a seat on AGT this week: With COVID-19 still obviously affecting all TV productions, that meant there still could be no live studio audience. Instead, a virtual Zoom audience (imagine a Brady Bunch grid the size of a wall) whooped and cheered the contestants on. And many of those contestants weren’t performing directly in front of the judges, but at different outdoor locations scattered across the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park and backlot. (AGT’s live shows usually take place indoors at L.A.’s Dolby Theatre, but not this year.) Child ballroom dancers Simon & Maria hoofed a retro routine in Mel’s Diner, hog act Pork Chop Revue waddled down Western Street, and sassy sisters Double Dragon paraded from Western Street to Mexican Street, for instance. Ukulele prodigy Feng-E even had to tape his performance in his home country of Taiwan due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, but he received the most dazzling set-design treatment of all.

So, despite all of these impediments (and one final snafu, when Bello of father/daughter daredevil act Bello & Annaliese Nock also injured his back and had to withdraw from this week’s competition, leaving Annaliese and her quickly recruited brother to do a retooled “double-wheel of death of fire” routine that almost ended in disaster), the show did go on. And it was a highly entertaining show. Kelly certainly seemed to be enjoying herself, and she fit right in, especially when critiquing singing acts like Shaquira McGrath, Roberta Battaglia, or Archie Williams. Simon missed out this week, but hopefully he will return soon — if Kelly will let him have his seat back, that is.

As for which contestants will be back, on Tuesday, 11 of the 44 acts that had made it past the Judge Cuts competed; only five of those 11 will now advance to the next round. My predictions for these five are Feng-E, whose “Smoke on the Water”/“Seven Nation Army” mashup earned comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Ed Sheeran; country power belter Shaquira, who was unsurprisingly one of Kelly’s favorites; 10-year-old baby-diva Roberta, whom Howie predicted could win the entire season; charismatic, pink-haired sword swallower Brett Loudermilk, who upped the danger ante this week; and wrongly incarcerated, recently freed soul crooner Archie, whose tragic backstory and semi-a cappella cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” had the judges (and probably that grainy virtual audience) in tears.

I’d personally love to see Double Dragon make it through, but I think voters will dismiss them as a novelty act. Hopefully Sofia Vergara and Howie’s suggestions that the “Bang Bang” twins get their own sitcom or reality series will be taken seriously by the NBC brass.

Of course, with an all-bets-are-off season like this one, it’s nearly impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen on America’s Got Talent now. But tune in to Wednesday’s results show to find out, and to see Kelly back in Simon’s seat.

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