One of the more curious narratives to come from the past few years of "American Idol Turmoil Theater" was the transition of Paula Abdul from addled curiosity to universally beloved cast-off. Abdul’s nonsensical cheerleading was always a semi-amusing distraction while she was on the show, but once she left in the midst of an apparent contract dispute, those traits became mythologized into something much more than the sum of their parts. Suddenly, people were mourning Paula Abdul, and it was downright strange. Now, two seasons later, Paula is back to exact her revenge with the dance competition show Live to Dance. The question is: Who exactly is the target of this revenge mission? After watching the show, I must admit, it sort of feels like us.
The only thing you really need to know about Live to Dance is that it’s loud. And bright. And sparkly. There is so much constant visual and aural stimulation it almost distracts you from the realization that there is absolutely nothing in the show that hasn’t already been done in many, many other shows before. There isn’t a reality TV contestant cliché the two-hour premiere doesn’t mine for all it’s worth: the cute child wunderkind, the down-and-out family who are trying to better their station by pimping their children out to a game show, the unrequited love, the comeback, the physical disability. At times, these stories threaten to have enough power on their own to overcome the obvious producer manipulation, but it’s really difficult to care about anything specific when you’ve heard it all before. (Also, it was just really hard to concentrate with all of the ridiculous screaming and bright lights flashing everywhere. Tone it down!)
On top of the rote stories, the format itself is completely familiar. Three “expert” judges holding auditions across the country in search of America’s best dancers? Where have we heard that before? Oh, sure, but this one has a system where the judges individually rate the contestants, who can only move on with a majority vote. Wait… what? That’s not new either? Come on now, you must be kidding. Hear me out: After the auditions, the approved contestants move on to a short list, from which the judges narrow down their choices for the semifinals. Surely, this is unique. No? It’s not? Well, I’ll be damned. There is a chance the show could distinguish its format in the episodes that air post-semifinals, but they haven’t bothered to explain how the show will evolve, so I can’t be bothered to concern myself. Will there be audience voting, or will the judges decide all the cuts for the duration? Who knows? Maybe not even the producers!
While watching, it’s easy to see that the best thing about the show is undoubtedly Paula. She brings a lot of her Idol personality to the table, primarily by speaking in encouraging platitudes and circular inspirational messages, like some sort of “you can do it” Dance Dance Revolution Barbie. This sounds like a slam, but it’s really not. I admire her ability to encourage and cheer on these people who have a dream. (It’s just hard to understand the nature of the ability when you have a heart as cold and black as mine.)
Beyond her cheerleading capabilities, though, she brings something to the table here she could never pull off convincingly on Idol: expertise. Paula isn't much of a singer, but her dancing credentials have never been in question. When she gives a critique, you buy it, and the producers wisely put one of her most spot-on moments of criticism directly at the beginning of the episode. I actually found myself wanting more of the critique and less of the silly dancers, montages, and cheerleading, but that is not where the show seems to want to spend its time. Why do something constructive when you can show a flight attendant and self-professed Paula Abdul fanatic named Stone Fleshman dance around aimlessly to “Forever Your Girl”? I admit, if I was a producer I doubt I would choose the critique either. The temptation of Stone Fleshman is just too strong.
All that being said, Live to Dance isn’t a wholly terrible show. On the surface, it’s perfectly respectably produced, if formulaic. It moves at a faster pace than one would expect for a bloated two-hour episode. However, it's the choice of formula over any sort of imaginative spark that ultimately deems the show unnecessary. In today’s landscape of reality television overcrowding, unnecessary is probably the worst thing Live to Dance could be.
- $500,000 is a pretty big cash prize for a first-year show these days. CBS obviously thinks this one has the potential to be a hit.
- “Hopefuls from all across the country are here to audition in the specially constructed, state of the art dance domes.”
- Seriously, dance domes. CBS wasted their money on dance domes. I guess the Hilton was booked.
- Host Andrew Günsberg is pleasant enough, but he’s no Cat Deeley. But really, now, who is?
- The other judges are Kimberly Wyatt (a founding member of the Pussycat Dolls) and Travis Payne (former choreographer for Michael Jackson). They are unremarkable in every way.
- I mentioned the aural stimulation, but it is impossible to convey just how much applause the audience was giving at all times during the performances. Either they beefed up the cheering in post, or they fed an entire auditorium made up of pre-teen girls a bucketful of sugar and told them Justin Bieber was about to take the stage. It was staggering.
- As a fan of the older-and-better So You Think You Can Dance, it was difficult to try to follow the audition process of this show. On SYTYCD, you know what the final round is like, so it’s easy to follow along, see what the judges are looking for, and therefore evaluate the dancing even if you have no dance background. Here, with all different group sizes, styles and ages, it’s hard to compare.
- The only group that really stood out to me in a positive way was the last to perform: Chinatown’s Greatest Breakers. B-Girl Precious Moments was pretty adorable. (This is the group whose parents are using them to raise their station in life, so I’m sure nothing but misery awaits these kids in life. Still. Cute.)
- A zombie dance troupe? Really? Can zombies not be everywhere, for one minute? Thanks.