Henning Fog
July 09, 2009 AT 05:32 PM EDT

So no sexified kids tonight. No forced narrative, either, or mean-spirited bait-and-switch critiques. Tonight…felt different. America’s Got Talent is still missing that moment of transcendence known worldwide as the “Boyle moment,” but tonight’s episode got closer than any previous installment to justifying that word in the title. Yup, tonight’s crew was TALENTED — no asterisks — and in a wide variety of disciplines, to boot. Opera singing! Rapping! Belly dancing! Stand-up comedy! Crazy trampoline basketball! Performers ran the GAMUT, and in a way that was consistently entertaining and engaging. Take THAT, episodes 1-5.

Arguably the most visually impressive act of the night was Acrodunk, a group of trampoline acrobats dunking basketballs in ways you or I could never hope to replicate. These guys commanded the stage, the judges hanging on their every bounce. Said Sharon, “I could watch you guys all night.” Sure, it was nothing you haven’t already seen at every basketball halftime show ever, but the performance was pulled off with such grace and professionalism that originality was almost irrelevant. Not even “I Believe I Can Fly” ushering them off the stage could tarnish their accomplishment. Flawless.

Somewhere lower on the talent ladder, eight-year-old Elisha Miller warbled and played her way through a rendition of “Proud Mary,” any lack of ability masked by the fact that she was overwhelmingly cute and precocious — and not in a creepy way, either. Even without Sharon’s vote (but she’s a MOTHER!), the confident third grader got the necessary Vegas support. She’ll be flying with her two cats and ten stuffed animals.

The next unexpected act came from 75-year-old Grandma Lee, who meandered out on stage…then launched into a saucy stand-up comedy routine. “My youngest daughter came home from college for the weekend. I went to the airport to pick her up, and the first words out of her mouth were ‘Mom, I got somethin’ to tell ya — I ain’t a virgin anymore.’ I said ‘All this money I’m payin’ to send your ass to college and you still say ‘ain’t’?'” Grandma!! The jokes were funny, her delivery spot-on, and the judges thoroughly impressed with the spark and vitality on display.

It wouldn’t be America’s Got Talent without a big finish, but tonight’s was the first since Kevin the Chicken-Catching Country Singer to register as something deeply sincere. Barbara Padilla, a full-time mom originally from Guadalajara, certainly looked the part of a professional in her elegant white dress. When she opened her mouth, it was clear she had the voice and talent to back it up. Singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi (see the video that opened this post), the woman left the judges in awe and the audience applauding like mad. Composed, powerful. And she waited until AFTER she sang to relate her personal story — she was a cancer survivor — letting her performance speak for itself. Quoth The Hoff: “You are what this show is all about!”

How about you, PopWatchers? Were you as impressed with tonight’s selection as I was? What are you hoping to see in the weeks ahead? Sing like there’s nobody listening, guys; comment like there’s nobody watching. (Well, me.)

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