Spoilers ahead for the Season 16 premiere of America's Got Talent on NBC.
America's Got Talent is finally back on NBC with Season 16, after the fifteenth season ended by making history with the kind of champion who had never appeared on the show before. The Season 16 premiere definitely didn't deliver another Brandon Leake, but there were some very original new competitors, one touching Golden Buzzer act, and the triumphant return of none other than Sethward for the fourth (and most successful) time. But after watching the premiere, I find myself thinking more about the virtual audience and wondering if it will skew the results.
When the Season 16 premiere of America's Got Talent kicked off, it was hard to even guess that the auditions had been filmed when the entertainment industry was still coming back from the COVID shutdowns, as it was pretty indistinguishable from the seasons that came before. And just as I was with The Masked Singer and Dancing with the Stars, I was more distracted by the pandemic audience than immersed into the action, and AGT really seemed to have the spectators crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder.
Fortunately, AGT hadn't really brought thousands of unmasked fans in to scream and cheer for the most (and least) talented acts that Season 16 has to offer. Eagle-eyed viewers might have caught that the visuals looked a little bit off behind where judges Simon Cowell (looking as spry as ever in shorts after recovering from his injury), Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel sat. Plus, the ending credits quickly flashed up an explanation of how the show pulled off the audience reaction shots:
Due to COVID health restrictions, visuals of audience featured in this episode included real and virtual shots, as well as shots from past seasons. The use of these visuals was for creative purposes only and did not impact the outcome of the judging.
Obviously it's a good thing that America's Got Talent went the extra mile to carry on with the show without endangering lives due to COVID, but the Season 16 premiere went a lot farther than just including shots of audience members clapping, laughing, and/or gasping at just the right moments. The frequent shots of the audience combined with the emotional reaction being elicited by their reactions left me with a sense of artificiality.
Even if the audience visuals didn't impact the outcome of the judging for the four judges, those visuals could linger in viewers when it comes time to start voting down the line. Maybe not in the case of the choir of nurses who won Howie Mandel's golden buzzer, but all the others who have been advanced to the next round of competition! Admittedly, you can't watch AGT without suspending your disbelief at least a little bit, and I'm not sure the show would really work in the long run without some audience reactions.
In fact, the absence of a roaring audience may be part of why Brandon Leake was able to be so successful with his spoken word performances that were so impactful without as much spectacle as AGT usually delivers last season. It was fantastic in his case, but he's definitely one of a kind. And with the Season 16 premiere, I felt like AGT was telling me who to like and how to feel.
Seriously, at this point, I'm not sure if I genuinely found Sethward funnier than ever in this episode because Sethward the Peacock had come a long way from Sethward the Caterpillar, or just found myself laughing along with everybody on screen (except for Simon Cowell). It should be interesting to see how AGT continues to handle virtual vs. real audiences moving forward, especially as the world begins to open up more and more with more people being vaccinated.