(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff drops in on Dancing With The Stars again.)
When I last covered Dancing With The Stars, I was disappointed that the political fervor surrounding the show ended up being such a big story that I was somewhat obligated to talk about it. I think it made for a more or less interesting discussion, but I was eager to get into the nitty gritty of just why this show is having its highest rated season yet when so many other dance shows have come and gone over the years. And, indeed, this has been a terrific spring for performance-based reality shows, with The Voice arriving with huge ratings out of the box (though they’ve been slipping), Dancing With The Stars posting its highest-rated season yet, and American Idol nicely improving its numbers from last year as the season has gone on. Clearly, there’s something about this sort of thing that’s appealing to the country right now, and these three shows have struck a chord where, say, CBS’ Live To Dance did not.
Now, I could pontificate about What It All Means and how these sorts of escapist programs often succeed in times of economic turmoil or what not, but I think the reason these sorts of shows are successful right now is because people like to watch the journey of amateur performers from klutzes with no stage presence to confident performers. This is especially true of Dancing With The Stars, where an entire montage in the season finale was devoted to people falling over. (Apparently, people falling over is this series’ version of giant wrecks in NASCAR races.) And yet the astounding popularity of Dancing With The Stars—particularly when you consider it receives about a quarter of the hype that either Idol or The Voice do—has to stem from somewhere. Unlike last fall, it’s rare to see a big news story about how the success of this show means something about America (since it’s hard to draw political conclusions about Kirstie Alley), yet the show is bigger than ever.
If I were hard-pressed to explain why this bland, inoffensive reality show is more successful than so many other bland, inoffensive reality shows, then, I’d probably pick the direction. It’s the sort of thing you don’t notice right away, but if you watch enough Dancing With The Stars, you’ll see that the technical direction of the program is superb, actually putting the fairly well-directed Idol to shame. The directors aren’t afraid to pull back into an unexpectedly well-framed long shot and just let the dancers do their thing, but they’re also fond of unexpected angles that highlight the dancers’ movement in particular ways. In Monday night’s performance finale, the camera popped BEHIND the heads of the judges, moving right as the dancers on the floor moved left, and it was some pretty exquisite camera work. The movement of the camera provided a mirror to the dancers, all the while giving us a better sense of what the judges were seeing, so we could better understand whatever crazy hyperbole the judges gave to the dancers at the end of the dance. (In general, the judges on this show are the least subtle on TV, which may account for the charm as well.)
Now, granted, this is a show shot in a small studio where the technical crew knows the ins and outs of every corner of the space. As such, it’s much easier to shoot than, say, Survivor, where the cameramen have to grapple with uncertainty at every turn. But for what it is, it just might be the best-directed show of its type on television, pulling off unexpectedly gorgeous shots on the fly and doing so so effectively that the effect registers almost subconsciously. Dancing With The Stars is a giant wedge of cheese, designed to provide the most inoffensive viewing experience possible, but it’s a beautifully executed wedge of cheese, and any time you happen to flip past the show while channel surfing, it’s pretty easy to get suckered into the show’s world of sequins and bright lights.
My appreciation for the program’s direction actually made Monday night’s performance episode fun to watch. Because ABC was intent on airing the two-hour premiere of The Bachelorette immediately afterward, the three final dancers were confined to an hour’s running time, and this ended up being just about right for the show, which has felt overstuffed every other time I’ve watched it. The episode fell into a predictable rhythm, sure—dancers danced, Tom Bergeron smirked smugly, the judges did their crazy thing, Kirstie Alley got thrown under the bus—but it was a borderline soothing rhythm. I’m not the world’s biggest reality TV fan, so I’m not the primary audience for this, but for what it was, the performance finale of Dancing With The Stars was surprisingly adept.
It certainly helps that the three dancers remaining were all interesting personalities who featured three different approaches to winning the whole thing. Disney Channel star Chelsea Kane, whom I’d never heard of, could have easily ridden the wave of Disney Channel fans (presumably mostly kids) who apparently vote for this thing en masse, but she was a fun, feisty presence, tossing herself into everything she did with a raw athleticism and playing off the surprising sexual chemistry she had with partner Mark Ballas. The show tried to play up Kane’s journey as going from “little girl” to “woman,” and while that was all well and good, Kane appeared to believe that being more womanly mostly involved pouting.
Hines Ward, meanwhile, apparently decided to take his mind off the impending NFL lockout (he plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers) by going on the show. Dancing With The Stars has an odd relationship with NFL players, with Emmitt Smith winning the whole thing and assorted other players (including Warren Sapp, of all people) throwing themselves into the competition as well. The show falls at just the right time for NFL players to try it out in the offseason, and the series gets lots of mileage out of someone like Ward carefully stomping around the dance floor, face stuck in a grimace so you could all but see him counting the beat in his head, then tossing his partner around easily in a series of surprisingly sophisticated tosses and twirls. It’s the juxtaposition of NFL player in spangly costumes, doing a cha cha, that the show seems to find hilarious (it’s not a series that’s terribly interested in non-traditional gender roles), but Ward, with a ready smile and a game willingness to try anything, was an appealing presence, and when he won the whole competition, it made perfect sense.
Finally, the series had Kirstie Alley, who was likely the worst dancer still in the competition (even the judges seemed less enthused by her, giving her only 9’s in Monday’s show, where 10’s were the norm for the others) but was also the most amusing. Alley used her acting training to her advantage, enlivening her routines, which had a whiff of “Look at the 60-year-old woman turn a cartwheel!” point-and-stare to them, with a rubbery face and occasionally priceless facial expressions. Alley wasn’t as great of a dancer as the others, and she knew it, but she seemed to be having fun out there, and that was easy to respond to. She was this season’s version of Bristol Palin—a contestant that a certain segment of the show’s audience cottoned to and kept in the competition long past when she should have been there—but without the terrified, blank stare or media furor of Palin, she was a much more appealing figure.
So, theoretically, this should have been a great way to lead into the two-hour results finale, where we’d see the final dances by all three duos and learn that Ward won the whole thing. Instead, it was two of the most excruciating hours of television I’ve watched in ages, filled with former contestants coming back for no particular reason (though I was amused to find that local radio personality “Psycho Mike” was somehow deemed a “star” this season) and playing off of inside jokes developed, I presume, over the course of the season. All of that would have been more or less bearable—since the audience for this show isn’t people dropping in on it once to ponder What It All Means—but the episode was also filled with montages, endless strings of them, to the point where roughly 30 minutes of the show was taken up by Bergeron introducing a montage, only to have it segue into yet another montage. Reality shows create their own reality, making a world where the fact that you just spent however many months watching people sing and dance doesn’t feel like a waste of time but, instead, like Something Incredibly Important You Did, but the efforts by Dancing to do this often feel strained. In particular, the attempts to play the whole series up as some sort of sporting event, with a grave opening montage narrated by Bergeron about the meaning of the word “journey,” felt needlessly pompous, as though the show forgot it’s a celebrity dancing competition where the contestants are aiming to win a tacky mirrorball trophy and not the Nobel Peace Prize.
That sense of self-importance ran throughout the two-hour finale, and it deflated what makes Dancing With The Stars fun. By the time Ward was crowned the champion, none of this felt particularly exciting or entertaining; it just felt forced and unnecessary. For every vaguely fun moment—like WWE star Chris Jericho unleashing a surprisingly amusing impression of judge Bruno Tonioli—there was something either needlessly bizarre—like former contestant Wendi Williams, uh, interviewing herself on the set of her talk show—or deeply boring—like those endless montages. After the performance finale Monday, I was all ready to say that Dancing With The Stars wasn’t for me but certainly could be perfect comfort food TV for plenty of people, and I could see why. But after the results finale, it’s easy to see why these sorts of shows have always eventually turned me off: Once you start to buy into your own hype, once you start to think you really are that great, once you start to think you’re more than just a television show, it becomes a lot harder to find any of this cheesily enjoyable. At some point, you have to remember it’s just about faded celebrities dancing to the strains of a cruise ship band, only to be praised by three overly effusive experts. It’s not a cure for cancer.