I'm as much of a cynic about reality shows as anyone. Even though I defend many game operas (Survivor, Amazing Race) on the grounds of cultural relevance or sheer entertainment value, I too feel all icky when trumped-up drama and horrific casting that caters to spotlight-hogs and celebrity-wannabes becomes impossible to ignore. And even though I will watch American Idol until they pry the remote from my cold, dead fingers, I have no illusions about the behind-the-scenes forces not-so-subtly pushing the show and its contestants toward a straightjacket model of popstardom. (I happen to think that the model itself is rather interesting, but I understand those who dismiss it out of hand because the kind of performer being sought is of no interest to them.)
And yet, I feel I don't have to be cynical — well, not very much, anyway — about SYTYCD. The show seems to be something its participants (including the senior personnel) are legitimately proud of. The contestants not only have real raw talent, they have training; they can do things that we at home could not fool ourselves into thinking we could do on our karaoke machines or DDR mats. They are not us. They are not EveryViewer. They, judges and dancers alike, are a breed apart.
So the show doesn't play out in the AI mode for me at all. It's more in the mode of the reality shows that first fascinated me and formed my enduring affection for the genre: portraits of people who lead lives and have skills far removed from my own. I watch to be amazed and educated in equal measure; as the season goes on, I find my ability to discern quality in these rarified areas becoming sharper. Even though I'll never be able to spot the lack of turnout or triple-bounce, those peculiar standards for peculiar ballroom specialities, I can discern groundedness and "hitting it" in hip-hop routines, and I can tell when flailing in a contemporary routine is intentional and right, and when it's evidence of a failure of control. I'm no professional, nor would I play one even on my living room sofa, but my taste has been refined by the show.
We're seeing a lot of finalists and winners from previous seasons on the last shows here, and it's so interesting because they are still dancers. Whenever a marginal top 16er from AI gets trotted back out, I think to myself — you're still trying to be a singer? Didn't you just go back to the checkout counter or back to school or whatever? It seems as if their singing personae should be shed with the show, because it's not integral to who they are. But SYTYCD finalists are legitimate technicians who should find it easy enough to go professional after this show. It's not at all a shock to see them back on the stage with the same chops — or better — that they displayed when they were contestants, chops that they only could have kept if they went on living as a dancer in the meantime. And why wouldn't they? Unlike those AI also-rans, they've obviously invested years in honing these skills; they've devoted themselves to being dancers.
This has been a fantastic season of SYTYCD not because there's been drama and shocking surprises, but because I've been at a loss to know who should be eliminated, at least among the women, for the last few weeks. The judges keep saying it's a testament to the quality of this year's finalists — and they're right. The men have not been quite so difficult, I think, simply because some who survived late into the process, like Kupono and Jason, lacked the powerful, masculine quality found in the dancing of Ade and Brandon. For this particular competition, where partnering rather than solos or ensemble work is so highly prized, those cuts were relatively easy to make. And as much as I (and apparently America) find Evan adorable, he's pretty clearly outclassed by his two remaining competitors. He's been wonderfully game and has impressed in some unusual settings, but admit it: You keep an eye on him to see if he's keeping up, not because he's going to wow you. In fact, worrying about his ability to manage distracts me from watching the other dancers, and at this point, you've got to resent that.
But what to do about the women? Once it was down to the top five, I found it difficult to say with authority that any of them were so much noticeably weaker than the others as to deserve elimination. Janette, my favorite because of her versatility and incredible work in almost every style despite her limited ballroom background, was eliminated in a shocker last week, although I don't know that any other female going home would have been less of a shocker. The judges went so far as to chastise the voters a bit, both last week and this, for not thinking broadly enough, and choosing the most interesting routines rather than the best dancing. (Nigel last week baldly stated, "America got it wrong" — how often do you hear that on this show as opposed to AI?) I would have preferred to see Jeanine leave before Janette, and she's my choice for elimination this week — not because she exhibited any appalling deficits, but because I think she's the dancer least likely to surprise me at this point.
Unfortunately for my preferred top two, Melissa drew Evan out of the hat this week. Her ability suffered being paired with him, I'm afraid. I'm not sure that's a problem Kayla had when she was dancing with Evan a few weeks ago; compare the way she was able to shine in those mismatched routines with the way Melissa seemed reduced to Evan's level.
Before we get to the results, let me say a little bit about the judging. It would be nice if there were a policy to go to Mary or Nigel first for all styles other than the one in which the guest choreographer specializes. Isn't it a little painful to hear a hip-hop choreographer giving the first uninformed, subjective opinion about a ballroom or Broadway routine? OK, I'll name names: isn't it uncomfortable to hear Lil C say he wasn't feeling it or he wanted more or some such abstract criticism, then flip to someone with actual expertise in that specialty or somewhat broader context to hear him be contradicted?
Let's recap the numbers along with Cat, shall we? I liked the weird men's group number; I loved the girls' superheroine number. My favorite couples routine of the night was — what else? — disco, even though there were plenty of heartstopping errors in it (Kayla really got dragged around in the second half of that double death drop, didn't she?). Their contemporary routine was really good, but not as transcendent as the judges seemed to think. I wasn't as excited by Melissa and Evan's Broadway number as I wanted to be; their quickstep was good, but I'm always just holding my breath during the quickstep to see whether the couple gets through it, and I usually forget to enjoy it. The salsa with Jeanine and Ade was kind of a hot mess, and I didn't think their hip-hop number was all that, either — just didn't seem sharp.
After writing above about Evan needing to go home, it was a little disconcerting see the ending to that lovely (if a bit on the cliche side) "Send In The Clowns" opening number, with Evan left outside the box waving goodbye. But we get to send one of the girls to safety first — and it's Jeanine! OK, at that moment I think it means that Melissa is gone. It's a shame after the pas de deux that she danced with Ade earlier in the season, and it's a shame after Mary scolded the voters for choosing too much on the basis of one night and not on the whole season. The first guy to be saved is Brandon, an easy choice; it's going to be a dogfight between him and Ade (I hope), but he's got to be the favorite. You saw that solo last night, right?
And your winners are: Kayla! (Oh, it would have been a horrible miscarriage of justice if that had not been the result.)
And … Evan. So there was a horrible miscarriage of justice tonight. Ade, I'm sorry America can't get past the cute little underdogs.
- Genevieve kindly let me have this week's gig after her travel plans changed; she should be on a plane even as a post. I'm happy to have one more opportunity to talk about this really remarkable season. And we're working on a system for the upcoming season where you'll get double the SYTYCD coverage, and Genevieve and I get the fun of arguing with each other about what's hot and what's not on the show. Stay tuned.
- It was great to see that door routine again. Interesting to watch them work around the fact that the door wasn't latching consistently when they closed it. But the "Bleeding Love" routine is one of my all-time favorites from this show. Yay for Chelsea and Mark! (Somebody with his height would have been a nice addition to the group this year.)
- Last night's musical selection for the solo performances was unusually emo-riffic — The Fray and Blue October back to back. I guess that's what the kids like these days.
- That Jabberwocky performance was truly nifty, but I wish I'd gotten to hear a little more of "Freakazoid."
- Man, Chelsea and Joshua's tango made me feel like we haven't seen nearly enough tango this season. Did they run out of tracks from the Forever Tango soundtrack?