My favorite show starts later this month. I am a sucker for America's Got Talent. I think it is the most American show on television. It works precisely how America should work: You work hard, practice and practice some more, and perfect your act. Then, you walk out, stand on a white "X," give it everything you have, and finally, you get a thumbs up or down on your own merits. If you advance to the next round of shows, it starts all over again until finally, like in America, the people decide if you win.
Like America, people come from all over the world chasing their dream. And here is the really American part: When those folks from overseas step onto the stage, everyone is rooting for them.
Simon Cowell and his staff produce unrivaled human-interest videos of the contestants. Auditions start months before air time. Aspiring singers, magicians, acrobats, comics, choirs, and all manner of starry-eyed performers go through a gauntlet of auditions before finally stepping onto the AGT stage. The back stories are a slice of Americana: The first winner, Bianca Ryan, was an eleven-year-old singer with a huge voice; Kevin Skinner, a southern chicken catcher who won season four; Terry Fator, a ventriloquist who rules Las Vegas with a $100 million contract won season two and inspired season twelve winner Darci Lynne Farmer, a twelve-year-old ventriloquist from Edmond, Oklahoma – who was one of my students when I was teaching middle schoolers at Deer Creek Middle school a lifetime ago. Kodi Lee is a blind, autistic, musical savant who won Season 14. Kodi headlines AGT's Las Vegas show.
Like America should work, AGT doesn't care about your gender, race, religion, or anything else, just your talent. Winners Landau Eugene Murphy, Kenichi Ebina, Shin Lim, Brandon Leake, and the women of Chapel Hart, who blew the theater's roof off in 2022, will vouch for it. Some contestants were bullied in school, and when they go on to a seven-figure contract following a standing ovation seen by millions, one can only hope their bullies are seething. A dog act won season seven. We Americans like our dogs. We also like an underdog story.
Perhaps no contestant exemplifies the American spirit, the story of an underdog rising, or the resilience of the human spirit more than Archie Williams. He stepped on stage in a suit and tie. Simon asked his name. He said, "My name is Archie Williams." Simon said, "Well, let's get to know you a little bit. Tell us something about yourself." Archie hesitated and said, "I was just incarcerated for 37 years for someone else's crime." The audience and judges gasped. "DNA freed me," he said. The producers cut to a video of Archie, which he narrated, explaining his ordeal.
Archie is five months younger than I am. We had vastly different American experiences. He grew up in the deep south. I'm a kid from the suburbs of Carmichael, CA. In 1982, when Archie was arrested, wrongfully convicted despite an alibi verified by multiple witnesses, and sentenced to life plus eighty years without parole, I was a Marine on Okinawa, teaching Marines water survival and how to swim. While Archie was in prison, I spent 26 years in the military, finished college, married, raised two children, taught school, and retired. I've had a great life while Archie was robbed of his. "I didn't have the resources (money) to fight the State of Louisiana." He said. "I prayed and sang. That's how I got peace."
Then, Archie Williams soulfully sang "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me." When he got to the lyric, "I'd just allow a fragment of your life to wander free." He held on to the note and the word "Freeeeeee." It hit home. That word. That American word. That inalienable right that Archie had taken away. It was more than a classic emotional AGT moment. The producers did not need to augment the applause with emotional music or pan across a sea of clapping audience members. The tears were everywhere – the judges, the emcee, Terry Crews, the crowd, my wife, and I in our living room all moved. No contestant, before or since, has impacted us like Archie Williams. Without AGT, we may never have known him.
No one knows what stars will be born this summer. I just know I'll be tuning in to the most American show on television.