The final countdown: A 'robbed' fan favorite, a pandemic champion and an 'icon' vie for one last spot on 'AGT: All-Stars'
It was the final countdown Monday — as the night’s theme music, supplied by Swedish hair-metal band Europe, indicated — when NBC aired the last episode of America’s Got Talent: All-Stars preliminary performances. Unlike the past five episodes, the judges’ no longer had the power to save one contestant via the Golden Buzzer, which meant there was only one finale spot left to be filled. And that finalist would be chosen not by the judging panel, but by an elite mystery group of “superfans” voting across the country.
So, this was the absolute worst bracket for any of this season’s remaining hopefuls — or non-hopefuls, as the case may be — to be in, because if there was any week when the show should have been able to advance two contestants, it was this one. The series literally saved some of the best for last. In any other week, a spot could’ve easily gone to teen Kazakh singer and Eurovision/The Voice Kids Ukraine veteran Daneliya Tuleshova, who judge Heidi Klum called “stunning all the way around” and Howie Mandel called “absolutely phenomenal,” or to fierce and fiery rapper Flau’Jae, who had signed to Roc Nation after competing on AGT Season 13 and returned to the show this week as “a beast to be reckoned with” and an “MVP,” according to Mandel.
But when it came down to it, only three of Monday’s contestants really had a shot — and only one of them would make it through.
Among those three was (super)fan-favorite Josh Blue, who in Season 16 had been on track to become the first-ever comedian to win AGT before shockingly placing third. On Monday, Blue received a standing ovation from the roaring audience as soon as he appeared, before he even cracked a single joke, and when he declared, “I wanted to return to the scene of the crime, because I was robbed,” everyone seemed to agree with him. (On possibly the most controversial and disappointing finale in AGT history, Blue lost to mediocre magician Dustin Tavella, who failed to make the All-Stars finale or even his All-Stars episode’s top three this season.) A “stand-up guy who falls down a lot,” Blue, who has cerebral palsy, delivered a hilarious, self-deprecating routine about raising kids as a disabled person, and he had fellow comedian Mandel proclaiming, “Laughter is the best medicine. … And you are the cure. You are the medicine. You gave us what we need more than anything else.”
And then there was an actual AGT winner, Season 15’s Brandon Leake. (There haven’t been many Got Talent champions on All-Stars this year, and most of the ones that have participated, like Tavella, haven’t advanced.) The spoken-word artist competed during 2020’s pandemic season, when production was delayed due to COVID concerns — he actually had to audition in an empty venue, and this week's performance was actually his first for a live AGT audience — and his vulnerable, autobiographical poems about loss, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the complexities of fatherhood and family resonated during such a fraught time. When Leake returned this week with a piece about a perspective-shifting encounter with a homeless man, his art felt as relevant as ever. Mandel gave him a standing ovation, and even credited him with opening doors for poets like Amanda Gorman. Leake was actually Mandel’s Golden Buzzer pick back in Season 15, but sadly, there was no buzzer available for him this time.
But then, in walked the winner of Season 14, and arguably the most beloved winner of any AGT season: Kodi Lee. And it was pretty obvious how this was going to go. “Now, this is an all-star,” declared Simon Cowell, while host Terry Crews called Lee an “icon.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the audience this loud!” Klum marveled, as the singer-songwriter/pianist, who now headlines the AGT residency in Vegas, hit the stage looking like a rock star in his silver jacket and was warmly welcomed with crowd chants of “Kodi! Kodi! Kodi!”
Musical savant Lee, who is both blind and autistic, became an instant sensation in 2019 with his Golden Buzzer audition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which racked up more 430 million online views and became the U.S. series’ most viral moment of all time. On Monday, Cowell recalled the judges being “on the edge of our seats” on that historic day, worrying that Lee would not be able to handle the pressure of a TV performance — before, of course, Lee pulled off a “magical, magical moment.”
“People always ask me this question: ‘What were your top three or four auditions?’ And every single time, we always mention your audition, Kodi,” Cowell noted.
After Lee wowed again with an exquisite rendition of Calum Scott’s “Biblical,” Mandel told him, “There's no other word to describe what you do than ‘amazing,’ and you are truly amazing. You're truly an all-star.”
Klum, who hadn’t been a judge on Lee’s season and was having the pleasure of seeing Lee compete for the first time, gushed, “I feel like my heart doubles in size when I hear you sing. ... I feel like AGT is what it is because of people like you.”
“I truly agree with Heidi,” added Cowell. “It is the people we've met along the way that have made this show so special. And Kodi, you're one of these artists who are always going to be amazing. There will never come a year where you go, ‘Kodi’s not good anymore.’ … You're always going to be better. Your performances are always going to be mesmerizing. And really, honestly, you define what an all-star is.”
And so, Lee, who Cowell said was “in a different league,” won the superfans’ vote, while Leake came in second and poor Blue had to settle for third place again. This was hardly a surprising outcome; honestly, if Lee hadn’t advanced, viewers probably would have been more outraged than Beyoncé fans were over Harry Styles’s upset Album of the Year win at the previous night’s Grammy Awards. But if there’d been Golden Buzzer in play this week, I have a feeling it would have gone to Blue. And the fact that both Blue and Leake went home this Monday, while the All-Stars finals will feature some relatively forgettable contenders, was frustrating. The AGT producers really messed up this spinoff series’ formatting.
Along with the above-mentioned Tuleshova and Flau’Jae, other contestants who were immediately eliminated Monday were magician Eric Chien, Voices of Hope Children’s Choir, dog act Lukas & Falco, and sword-swallower Brett Loudermilk. Perhaps less frustratingly but certainly just as unsurprisingly, the episode’s worst-saved-for-last novelty act, prankster Sethward, also didn’t make the cut. But the absurdist prop comic, who has competed on more AGT seasons than any other contestant, established his own personal best. This time, he arrived in a mangy goat costume and challenged the judges, “You thought you guys could have All-Stars without the G.O.A.T.?” — and then promptly received his 12th red X, because that sort of buzzer was still in play this week. “No one has received more buzzers than I have!” Sethward boasted. And that made him an all-star, in his own way, on his own terms.
So now, Lee, along with dance troupe Light Balance Kids, hand-balancing trio the Bello Sisters, Detroit Youth Choir, comedian Mike E. Winfield, saxophonist Avery Dixon, magician Aidan McCann, solo singer Tom Ball, ventriloquist Ana Maria Mărgean, and aerialist acts Aidan Bryant and Power Duo, is headed to the America’s Got Talent: All-Stars finals. Do any of those other acts have a chance of beating Lee? Probably not, but tune in and find out, when the All-Stars finale airs Feb. 20.
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