With American Idol ending next season, the future of So You Think You Can Dance is an even bigger question mark than usual. The two shows have always had a strong connection thanks to creator Simon Fuller, and it’s very likely that Fox will dump American Idol’s dance-centric companion once the main series is off the air. Given how disappointing this 12th season premiere of So You Think You Can Dance is, I can’t say a cancellation would be all that bad.

This is easily the worst opening episode of any season, and that includes the bad old days when the show would spend considerable time on random people eager to get some time on television by acting a fool at a reality show audition. It’s a premiere that completely loses focus on what’s important—the dancing—and instead delivers loads of filler and extremely patronizing behavior from the judging panel, which now includes Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo. Abdul has had plenty of experience as a reality television competition judge, and her recent tenure as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance Australia proved that she can be a valuable critic and teacher for aspiring dancers. Paula has her flighty moments, but she’s a much calmer personality than Mary Murphy, and she has a technical background that makes her a solid replacement.

Jason Derulo was a guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance last season, and he offered little insight for the Top 20 performance episode, which is a time when the dancers need the most guidance. He was overly complimentary and didn’t take into account that there’s a critical part of judging, but what made Derulo’s presence unacceptable last season was his live performance, taking attention away from the dancers that are supposed to be spotlighted. It appears as if there’s some sort of clause in Derulo’s contract that states he needs to perform at least once on every episode, because he performs twice on this season premiere.

I did not tune in to So You Think You Can Dance to watch Jason Derulo sing “Talk Dirty To Me” in front of a bunch of children in Memphis. Maybe that’s the music those kids dance to regularly, but a producer should have realized that “Talk Dirty To Me” isn’t the best accompaniment for a children’s dance crew and is definitely not an appropriate song for an “impromptu” live performance. “Talk Dirty To Me” happens in the first hour, but this is a two-hour season premiere so that means one more bit of Jason Derulo pulling focus. He doesn’t sing in Dallas, but he still gets on stage, this time after acting like a total asshole to the contestant.

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Derulo is visibly uncomfortable and immediately dismissive of any effeminate men that take the stage, first with Courtney Barnes in Memphis and then with Kiosh Monroe in Dallas. Courtney and Kiosh aren’t the best dancers this show has seen, but they are both incredibly high-energy performers with huge personalities that would be a major boon to this series. But instead they are told that they’re not right for this competition. Derulo loses interest immediately once these dancers take the stage, and he can’t even be bothered to feign interest when they start performing. He’s made up his opinion before the music even starts, and his behavior ends up supporting Nigel’s notoriously homophobic perspective on the judges’ panel.

Courtney Barnes ends up getting a ticket to Vegas after she literally begs for it, degrading himself in a way other male dancers auditioning for “Team Street” didn’t have to. The scene is hard to watch, and it’s a bittersweet victory when he’s finally handed a ticket that he deserves without dealing with humiliation from the judges. But at least Courtney gets a ticket. Kiosh doesn’t get to go Vegas, has to deal with Jason’s flippant attitude, and is then put on display teaching the women of the audience a “dance workout,” forced into a Richard Simmons role when he wanted a chance at being America’s Favorite Dancer. He clearly enjoys all this attention, but there’s something very condescending about the way the judges treat Kiosh, and I don’t believe for a second that Richard Simmons is on the phone with Paula.

Nigel and Jason often mention that Courtney and Kiosh aren’t a good fit for this show, but they are the exact kinds of big personalities that make for great reality television. Would they get votes? Who knows, but at least they’ll be entertaining. The bigger question is: Can they perform choreography? I’m not sure, because this season doesn’t have a choreography portion of auditions. Which brings us to the next thing that holds this episode back: the new format.

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Season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance has a “stage vs. street” theme, splitting the Top 20 into two groups of 10 dancers. “Team Stage” is your more traditional dance styles that are taught in a more formal setting: ballet, jazz, contemporary, ballroom, tap, etc. “Team Street” is for more recent dance styles that are typically self-taught: hip-hop, krump, breakdancing, popping, etc. I appreciate that the show is trying something different in order to stay fresh, but after watching this episode, I still have little idea of how this is going to work when we actually get to the Top 20. One dancer from each team is eliminated each week, but does that mean that the dancers will still be dancing in different styles? Will street dancers be paired with stage dancers for the couples? Travis Wall and tWitch will be mentoring the two teams, but what exactly does that entail?

The stage dancers typically have an upper hand because a lot of them have a wider dance vocabulary than street dancers simply by having formal training, which is why the majority of dancers that end up in the Top 20 are “Team Stage.” No season has ever had a Top 20 that wasn’t at least 75% stage dancers, so when there’s a street dancer that can adapt to a variety of different styles without having extensive training, that story tends to get a lot of play over the course of the season. Now there are going to be 10 street dancers, and one of them is getting to the end no matter what. Where’s the tension in that?

The main reason street dancers don’t make it into the Top 20 is because they aren’t able to adjust to the many different styles of dance thrown their way in Vegas week, and partnering is especially difficult for street dancers that are just trying to keep up with their own part. The choreography portion of the audition process was a major testing area for the street dancers, checking their skills with choreography that is far less advanced than what they’ll be dealing with in Vegas. If they can make it through the first round of choreography, they have a chance at making it in Vegas, but if they crash and burn at the start, they’re not fit move forward.

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That’s an important thing to establish, because this show is dangerous. There are a lot of injuries on So You Think You Can Dance, especially during Vegas week, and if dancers don’t have the right preparation, they can seriously hurt themselves and their partners. Some impressive street dancers got tickets to Vegas this week when they would have likely been sent to choreography in the past because the judges have to see if they have the fundamental skills required to get into the Top 20. I’m getting very nervous for the well-being of the dancers in Vegas this year, and it will be very interesting to see if there are enough street dancers that can match the versatility of the stage dancers.

This episode is full of useless filler, including a long video package for a dancer that works as a valet and wishes he could live a baller life for one day. Sometimes these types of diversions are tolerable during auditions, which are often used to highlight individuals and groups that wouldn’t end up in the final competition, but for the most part they are unnecessary distractions from the actual meat of the episode: the immensely talented dancers that will eventually end up in the Top 20. There are a few stand-out performances—contemporary dancer Jordan Hilgenberg is a young redhead that dances with outstanding strength and control, and hip-hop dancer Ladia Yates has smooth footwork and a bubbly personality that make her a lot of fun to watch—but it’s hard to remember the strong points when you have to deal with all the crap around them.

Stray observations:

  • I feel like the producers could have done something cool with the power outage situation in Memphis instead of just milking it for a lot of tension. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this streamlined audition process and the stripped down filming style. Also, they were so strapped for time that Jason Derulo couldn’t derail it all somehow.
  • This show is prone to exaggeration, but the video package explaining the new format of the show is absurd. The crumbling ground underneath Travis and Twitch makes me laugh. Stage versus street is going to shatter the world.
  • I love the video package about jookin’. That is educational filler that is showing me dancing people.
  • It’s not easy being a dorky white guy street dancer on this series. Even if you go to Vegas, you get a loser edit.

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