That was quick. The roulette wheel decided that it wasn’t quite done spitting things out quite yet, even though it isn’t fully repaired, so it’s time for more TV Roulette. This week, things go in a little different direction. Once again, I’m taking a look at a competitive reality TV show, which is just my favorite thing to do (yep, that’s sarcasm). This time it is ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. This ABC stalwart has helped build the network into the power it is today. DWTS‘ ratings aren’t quite what they used to be, but does that mean the show itself is suffering in quality? We’ll find out right after the rundown.
Spoilers Ahead, but I mean, there kind of has to be.
TV Roulette 2.0 Week 2
Dancing With the Stars; ‘Episode 6,’ Season 23, Episode 6
October 3rd 2016
Have I Seen This Show Before?
Err, sort of…
This show has been on for quite a while, and I have definitely watched bits and pieces of it at times, but I can’t for the life of me remember if I have actually watched an entire episode before or not. I seem to remember some season that I at least watched chunks of episodes somewhat consistently, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I am completely making that up. Still, I have always kept a rough eye on who actually wins each season just out of curiosity.
I talked about this some when I discussed Face Off, but these competition shows are viewed differently depending on how much the general public can actually judge what they are seeing. When the audience can tell the difference between a good and bad performance, the show doesn’t need all that many bells and whistles to be engaging, because the drama of what we are seeing is apparent. This is one reason that singing competition shows generally flourish. A show like The Voice can simply rely on its singers to keep things interesting. Sure, not everyone has a perfect ear for singing, but if nothing else, you can simply compare singers against each other, or against the normal standards we expect to hear when we listen to music to tell if someone is good or not. This scales much better than with, say, musical instruments, for which, after a certain level of quality, gradations in skill become difficult to discern for the untrained ear.
Likewise, dancing is hard to judge. Sure, we can tell when we are watching bad dancing or when we are watching good dancing, but it starts to get dicey after that. Once you see a great dancer, it becomes a bit harder to judge how great the dancer is compared to other dancers, especially across styles. Part of this is because things like playing a musical instrument well or dancing well require a degree of dedication that isn’t necessarily viewed as being necessary for something like singing (which is a false sentiment, but its generally much easier to believe that you are a decent singer as opposed to a decent dancer and belief can create false confidence). So there is a degree of disconnect when watching a dancing show, because unless someone really messes up or is really amazing (and even then, it’s hard to compare multiple amazing dancers to one another). Now, there is an argument to be made that you just double down on great dancers, and load a show with only great dancing and trust people will enjoy seeing so much awesomeness even if they have no idea what is really going on in the competition. That is what So You Think You Can Dance has basically done, and it has been on since 2005 and won multiple Emmys, so it is doing something right. SYTYCD also relies on an American Idol style open audition system to create some early drama and allow it to showcase both good and bad dancing, and while the show has been a success, it has never had the same level of popularity that other reality competition shows have had, including Dancing With The Stars.
Part of that is that Dancing With The Stars does the best it can to showcase great dancing, pairing each “star” with an actual professional dancer, but the bigger key to DWTS‘s success is that it has realized how important spectacle is to presentation. The show takes strong advantage of the fact that audiences love seeing “stars” work really hard to do something difficult, or in any sort of competition period. This is why Battle of the Network Stars was so popular back in the day, why people love seeing celebrities on game shows, and why (sigh) Celebrity Apprentice endured far longer than the original Apprentice (even name dropping The Apprentice has left me feeling really dirty right now, but it’s such an apt comparison). Anyway, DWTS has used this formula to immensely success, making the show a tremendous foundation of ABC’s programming schedule for years. Today the show is nowhere near its lifetime peak ratings, but it is still a steady performer that people continue to tune in for, because there is just something about watching celebrities care so damn much about doing well in a dancing competition. More importantly, the contestants must be willing to embarrass themselves, because high level dancing is hard, and the professionals and their star partners have to work tirelessly for a week to try and nail their dance routine as perfectly as possible. Sometimes people flourish in these situations and sometimes they flounder, but regardless, everyone tends to have loads of fun, and that fun is infectious.
What really separates DWTS from other celebrity competition programs is the level of seriousness the show tends to exude. Don’t get me wrong, this is a ridiculous show that is full of all kinds of silliness, but everyone takes the dancing itself very seriously. For the most part, the show doesn’t seem to exist to make fun of anyone, but instead encourages each dancer to do their personal best and applaud them for the effort. In that way, it is a lot like The Voice, in that it seeks to build up instead of tear down with its critiques. Though unlike The Voice, DWTS at least somewhat seems interested in offering real criticism and advice on how to improve. All of this helps keep the audience committed because the show isn’t simply a joke. A lot of shows have tried since DWTS to recreate this kind of magic, but generally take things a bridge too far by swapping out dancing for ice skating or high diving (I am still amazed this existed; like, seriously. what the hell?), and they haven’t done too well as a result. It’s just hard to get the same degree of personal connections with celebrities that we seem to be able to get from watching them struggle to learn how to dance. Furthermore, this humanizing has allowed DWTS to be a great place for celebrities with an image problem to try and rebuild some public goodwill (hello, Ryan Lochte this season). With all of that said, it is still one of the more amazing things that this show has been so God damned successful. It just goes to prove that you never know when you will catch lightning in a bottle. Even more rare is to then channel that lighting into a long lasting institution that is probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
That’s all well and good, but what about the actual episode? Well, DWTS kind of got to cheat this week, because it was “Cirque du Soleil” themed, and that meant they could have done pretty much anything and I would have liked it because “Cirque du Soleil” is amazing. But the show itself was rather entertaining. This is one of the few reality competitions shows that actually makes non-competition footage interesting, and watching each pair prepare for their upcoming dances was strangely compelling. Even if, like I said, it is kind of hard to really tell how good or bad people really are. Like, it was obvious that Laurie Hernandez and Valentin Chmerkovskiy were good, and that Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and his partner Allison Holker had some issues (though that dance had so much going against it that it was likely doomed to fail from the start), but mostly everyone else seemed to be roughly about the same, which the judges’ scores seemed to reflect. But it is still rather early in this season, as this is just the fourth week, so maybe that is to be expected. So I’ll admit I wasn’t being all that critical when looking at the dancing, but instead was more concerned with watching the spectacle of the show itself, which got an obvious boost because various “Cirque du Soleil” acts were being performed throughout the episode as well. Acts that kept happening even while the audience was watching commercial breaks, which added a layer of special energy to the live show itself. DWTS knows what it is doing, and was able to craft quite a compelling, though clearly overcrammed, episode. So the overall level of superb competence was quite the sight to behold, and the episode proved to be an effective source of drama and fun.
Notes and Observations
- I am not going to literally go step-by-step through each dancer’s routine because I have no idea what the hell I would be talking about, but I will say that James Hinchcliffe and his partner Sharna Burgess probably put together my favorite number, because the basically put on a dancing number combined with a musical, which was awesome.
- Going back to Babyface’s routine, man, what a tough spot. Every other performer got quite the boost from their paired “Cirque du Soleil” show, especially top scorers Laurie and James, while he got spotlights and a couple of background dancers. I don’t know how each show was selected, but he got no favors done for him with his number choice. There was a level of precision required for his dance such that I am not sure most of the other celebrities could have done any better. He certainly struggled, and was deserving of the lowest score, but man, you feel for him and his partner Allison, who clearly knew this was a brutal routine to get down in a week.
- The fact that both Jana Kramer and Vanilla Ice are on this show is kind of crazy, considering they are both still actively performing, which means much of their rehearsal is spent traveling from concert-to-concert. The fact that both pulled off their dances fairly well is a feat in itself.
- Watching both Calvin Johnson and Ryan Lochte dance is kind of hilarious because they both look so out of their element. Especially considering how at odds their strength training for football and swimming can be with the flexibility needed for dancing.
- So, the scores seem to be kind of nonsense. Like, everyone basically got the same. I imagine this is partially because the judging is just half the battle on this show, as viewer votes matter just as much, and this way the judges don’t impact things too much with wild scores in any direction. Plus, it makes it much more noticeable somebody gets a significantly different score, which can have a real impact on the viewers.
- Still, what kind of curve is everyone being graded on? Presumably dancers are graded based on their own level of improvement, not on their absolute ability (at least until later in the competition), so that it at least appears that everyone has a chance. Right now the better dancers are likely to have the advantage, as there isn’t much else you can look at, but after a certain point if you survive long enough, you will start being more looked at based on your own potential. Along with how important the audience vote ends up being, this is why the best dancer doesn’t always win (or how Bristol Palin almost won, even though by all accounts she was a horrific dancer).
- Tom Bergeron relaying that this show is a dream come true for his accountant is one of the truest things I have ever heard, because trust me, this dude gets ridiculously well-paid each week.
- Also, I completely forgot that Rick Perry was on this season of the show, primarily because he had already been eliminated, but also because I tend to forget that Rick Perry exists in general.
- So for completion’s sake, I also watched the results show for this episode to see who got eliminated. This week, to make up for the lack of eliminations in week one, there were two eliminations.
- The first was, unsurprisingly, Babyface, who just never stood a chance with his score being so much lower than everyone else’s.
- The second was Vanilla Ice, a little more surprising. Of course, there was quite the log jam between the top of Laurie and James and the bottom with Babyface, so someone had to go. Interestingly, it came down to Vanilla and Jana, who are both dealing with the double duties of touring and being on the show. (Laurie, to be fair, has had to do similar things, but as a gymnast has a bit of a head start in learning a routine.) How much longer Jana can keep this up will be interesting to see, because there is just a point that her inability to practice as much as the others will hurt her.
- The most relevant thing gleamed from the result show, however, is that James is facing a real uphill battle. Being a Indy race car driver makes him relatively anonymous compared to everyone else, because even if you know who he is, it is likely you have rarely seen him outside of his racing helmet. That clearly hurt him, as he found himself at risk for elimination despite getting the second highest score of the night. Everyone on the show have expressed how much of a surprise he has been, but this anonymity is likely one of the reason he won’t be able to win in the end, and might get eliminated early to boot.
- Who do I think will win? I mean, at this point Laurie Hernandez is the favorite. She has the Olympic glow going for her that should get her votes, combined with fact that gymnasts generally do quite well. Still, being as good as she is could backfire, as audiences at times seem to rebel against such choices, which prevented Nastia Liukin from even making the finals despite scoring perfectly, like Laurie did in this episode. It is kind of wide open after Laurie, unless James can pick up more votes, but as a dark horse I would go with Terra Jolé, who could really capture the heart of America, and whose professional partner Sasha Farber proposed to fellow professional dancer Emma Slater during the results show. Terra and Sasha seem like they could easily catch fire and win the whole thing,
Episode Grade: B+: This was a fun show that crams a lot into its running time. Would it have been nearly as interesting without “Cirque du Soleil” being a part of it? Maybe not, but it was, so that gets the show extra points.
Will I watch more?
I will likely keep up with what actually happens this season more so than I normally do, simply because I actually am somewhat invested now, but I probably won’t actually watch the show, other than maybe the finale. This was fun as a one time thing, but as a weekly occurrence this would grow rather old, and I simply just don’t have time to watch it along with everything else I am already watching.
That’s it for this week’s TV Roulette. This time I mean it when I say it is hard to say when the next one will be, but in the mean time, Kyu is doing some great work with Killtoberfest, so why not check in to see what he is doing while you wait for more TV coverage? Remember, though, “Cirque du Soleil” improves everything, so incorporate it whenever you can.