June 17, 2008 -- Talent may be in the eye of the performer. But "America's Got Talent" is clearly in the eyes of viewers.
NBC's über-reality show, which has its Season 3 premiere tonight (9 ET/PT), seemingly has known no bounds when it comes to taste, train wrecks or talent ranging from Shirley Temple wannabes to rapping grannies. But it was also TV's top-rated show last summer, averaging 11.5 million viewers.
The quest for 15 minutes of fame (or far less, depending on how much the show's judges are willing to put up with) has attracted more than 200,000 hopefuls this season aiming for the $1 million prize, one of the biggest payoffs on TV. Last season's Talent winner, ventriloquist Terry Fator, also signed a five-year, $100 million contract to perform at Las Vegas' Mirage casino 48 weeks a year beginning in 2009.
"It's way better than hitting the lottery," Fator says. "In my wildest dreams, I never thought something like this could happen."
Talent is "a guilty pleasure -- like 'The Gong Show' and 'Let's Make a Deal' -- that's just pure Americana," says David Hasselhoff, one of "Talent's" three judges. (Though the judges toss the unworthy in the early going, viewers' votes ultimately decide the winner.)
"From wackos to heartwarmers, some of their stories are incredible," he says. "There are waitresses and sewer cleaners and a guy who's back from two tours in Iraq. They have a lot of heart. And the show just gives everyone hope."
This season's auditioners include "the most exciting and craziest acts on Earth," says hyperbolic host Jerry Springer. Tonight's episode includes an 80-year-old tap dancer, a 4-year-old singer and a 24-year-old cross-dresser with a spot-on impersonation of Britney Spears.
This season's show is a bit more polished, in part because there were more acts to choose from and more variety. "We were kind of wandering through the first season. And last year, there were a lot of kids who came on who were pushed by parents who thought they could sing," Hasselhoff says.
"It's ramped up big-time this year," he says. "We were able to go across the country and see the talent in several cities. We're seeing a terrific amount of dancers and singers who aren't so raw."
Aside from comedians, magicians, contortionists, impressionists, jugglers and tap dancers vying for stardom, several cross-dressers appear to be among the most talented contestants, Hasselhoff says. "The guy imitating Britney has a better shape and legs than she does. A transsexual has completely transformed into Tina Turner. And there's a transvestite with a five-octave range who does an amazing duet with himself."
Piers Morgan, the British journalist judge with the blunt, often-nasty critique style of "American Idol's" Simon Cowell (who co-produces "Talent" but does not appear), says that while the overall talent level may be higher this season, some was of dubious quality. "Certainly, there's a massive range of talent. Some I've never seen before, some I never want to see again."
But Morgan, like many "Talent" viewers, has a soft spot for oddities. "There's a 7-footer drinking milk through his nose and simultaneously blowing up small (firecrackers) around his midriff," Morgan says. "It's a very weird act, but incredibly entertaining."