Henning Fog
July 29, 2009 AT 05:10 PM EDT

After a lengthy audition round that made Transformers 2 look like a short film, America’s Got Talent has finally moved on; winging its way to the City of Sin for two “callback” episodes that will determine the Top 40 acts. Vegas, baby, Vegas! It’s screamingly appropriate that last night’s episode — so dismal for many contestants, so euphoric for others — would take place in the easy-come, easy-go capital of the United States.

Mere minutes into the show, our judges announced to the throng of 160 hopefuls gathered in an airport hangar (?) that 40 of them would be sent packing immediately, not even given the chance to perform in this second round. And…wow. In five weeks this show has done little to surprise anyone watching, but the judges’ decision here was as much a shock to the contestants as it was to us at home. “We’ve worked our hardest and…and we didn’t think this was going to happen,” said one COMPLETELY DEJECTED performer. Weren’t these people promised a second-round chance? Wasn’t that implied in their earlier acceptance? I know I’d be fuming if I found out “you’re going to Vegas!” ended with “but maybe just the airport.” A bummer of epic proportions.

From another perspective, though, the judges were finally embracing the difficult decisions they had for so long put off. Like we’ve talked about before, performances in that first round can be awfully deceptive: Couple a great backstory with judges eager for something — anything — good after a day of dubious quality, and it’s easy to mistake a moment for talent. The Hoff admitted as much. “We reviewed your tape, man,” he told singer Keith Johnson, “and we’ve concluded there are better singers. Sorry.” Heartbroken, the man quietly made his exit.

This tough-love approach meant rejection for other popular acts, as well. Everyone’s favorite disco-dancing septuagenarian, Tony Ferrante, was also denied admission to the next round. “We have to judge on the talent,” spaketh The Hoff, again embracing his role as the decider. Also given the boot was magician Joseph Constantine, who was told there really wasn’t room for two magic acts on the show. I would disagree (disappearing acts mean room for more people), but the judges clearly had some sort of vision. What I didn’t count on was that vision dismissing The Spiritual Harmonizers, whose USPS a capella stylings lit up the stage only two weeks earlier. What happened here?

All of these rejections were difficult to swallow (and watch, given our own sympathy) but also necessary…and sort of refreshing. You could tell tonight that the judges were taking their job very seriously, keen on assembling a dynamic and well-rounded Top 40. I wondered early on if they weren’t making a mistake in forgoing a standard second audtion, but the lack of structure in this first callback really worked. Talent isn’t something easily analyzed, categorized; its processing requires a willingness to use one’s gut and that sometimes means abandoning the rules. Or something…I’m freestyling as much as the judges were tonight.

It wasn’t all rejections! We saw snippets of the tapdancing sisters, Acrodunk, the dancing/gymnastic-ing brothers, and the yodeling dominatrix (all of whose names would have been greatly appreciated FLASHED ON THE BOTTOM OF THE SCREEN), recipients of the judges’ coy approval to advance to the Los Angeles semis. Plus, the teenage contortionist, whose mother is very proud. We are, too, teenage contortionist! In typical AGT fashion, the first callback episode saved two of its brightest stars for last: baritone singer Lawrence Beaman and musician Kevin Skinner. The cross-cutting between the two contestants attempted to ramp up the suspense, but there was never any doubt that both of these performers — arguably the two most popular thus far — would be getting the thumbs-up. Cue smiles. Cue tears of joy. You earned your nice ending, guys.

Tonight marks the end of our quick trip to Vegas (how did we lose EIGHTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS?!?) and also the callbacks round, results of which will determine our Top 40 performers. Are you excited? I’m excited! Down another cup of coffee and let’s GO GO GO with the comments and the analyzing and the predicting. Vegas!

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