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LISA RINNA, LOUIS VAN AMSTEL
Richard Cartwright  /  ABC
Lisa Rinna, host of SOAPnet's "Soap Talk," practices with "Dancing" partner Louis van Amstel.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/5/2006 11:55:58 PM ET 2006-01-06T04:55:58
COMMENTARY

"Wayne's World" fans and Master P completists rejoice: "Dancing with the Stars" returns on ABC on Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. ET, and thanks to the presence of Tia Carrere and an unfortunate last-minute injury to Li'l Romeo, you all have much to be thankful for.

In its first season, "Dancing" made a speedy trip from obscurity to ubiquity, lending ho-hum participants like Rachel Hunter and Joey McIntire more pop-culture relevance than they'd had in years. The chance to see Evander Holyfield do the jive was just too much for many bored summer viewers to resist, and the underlying goof factor of ballroom dancing, which most people don't experience on a day-to-day basis, made the series a curiosity and then a bizarrely unexpected hit.

This year's teams are predictably more plentiful, with 10 dance teams instead of six, but the celebrities are no less dodgy. In addition to Carrere and Master P (stepping in for his injured son Romeo), this edition is packed with some high-caliber cheese.

Contestants include the reliably bizarre George Hamilton; Drew "Not The One Who Married Jessica Simpson" Lachey; Lisa Rinna, who brought her imposing and fishlike lips to "Melrose Place," and "Veronica Mars"; journalist Giselle Fernandez; former "SportsCenter" host Kenny Mayne, who will now never be cool again; actress Tatum O'Neal; wide receiver Jerry Rice; and Stacy Keibler. (What do you mean, "Who?" She's the WWE "Babe Of The Year" for 2004.)

The return of a hugely successful phenomenon is always a trickier enterprise than it seems. ("The Next Joe Millionaire," anyone?) There's a fine line between striking real gold and catching momentary lightning in a bottle, and it's not clear yet whether the sheer unlikelihood of the first "Dancing" was part of its success. It isn't unheard of for programs that are irresistible as underdogs to fizzle out once they're certified hits, and shows from "The Osbournes" to "Trading Spaces" to "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" have demonstrated the fickle eye of the fan.

In an effort to battle that tendency toward sophomore slumps, most competitive shows tweak their rules, whether for good or for ill. The biggest change on tap for "Dancing" is that unlike the first season, which combined viewer voting from one week with judges' scores from the next week, the second run will be done "Idol"-style. That means a Thursday competition show followed by a Friday results show, allowing voting to be applied to the same week's elimination. It also means that ABC is betting a full 90 minutes a week of its schedule on its ability to sell this show again.

Taking on the ‘Idol’ juggernaut
There are serious questions, though, beginning with how many voting-based shows viewers can invest in at the same time. "American Idol" is the rare reality show smart enough to leave wide gaps between seasons so that its audience is anxious for it to come back, and its fifth round kicks off Jan. 17 on Fox. Will fans who faithfully tune in for "Idol" on Tuesday and Wednesday then devote themselves to "Dancing" on Thursday and Friday? If you're wearing out your fingers dialing to save the latest lovably geeky cheeseball to get the business from Simon Cowell, are you then going to spend hours expressing your devotion to Jerry Rice?

But while last summer's "Dancing" was off-season filler with little competition of note, this year's version will hatch in a substantially different landscape. The Thursday-night show will face not only the critically beloved "Everybody Hates Chris" and eventually "Survivor," but also the front end of NBC's push to reclaim Thursday nights for its half-hour comedies. It faces the less formidable "Will and Grace"/"Four Kings" half of that block rather than the imposing "The Office"/"My Name Is Earl" half, but the challenge certainly remains more substantial than it was in June. It's tougher to maintain your position against a competitive field than against reruns and QVC jewelry sales.

And the judges' scoring on "Dancing" was a persistent first-season problem. Rather than just letting the judges pick a favorite and a goat as they do on "America's Next Top Model" or "Project Runway," "Dancing" has its judges give each individual dance numerical scores, which tempts fans to expect coherent explanations for those scores — explanations that the show has never been willing or able to provide.

As hard as it is to believe that integrity could be an issue for a show that features George Hamilton twirling, last season's finale set off a surprisingly vigorous debate after "General Hospital" hottie Kelly Monaco took the title over an evidently miffed John O'Hurley . For some viewers, it was an amusing example of an upstart working hard all season and upsetting the favorite, but for others, it was a scandal on par with the use of performance-enhancing drugs during the Olympics.

This may not be a fatal flaw for the show, and it certainly isn't a first — "Idol" is the subject of frequent conspiracy debates ranging from unlikely to hilariously convoluted. And while the righteous indignation seems capable of fueling endless Clay Aiken Christmas albums, it doesn't seem to put much of a dent in the show itself.

Still, if "Dancing" is going to succeed for a second season, it's going to have to tighten up the judging so that viewers have some justification for all those scores. It will also need to use decent music, rather than convincing itself that "Endless Love" is a rumba or that anyone could ever feel remotely sexy while dancing to "Eye Of The Tiger," both mistakes that were made last season. With popularity comes the kind of nitpicking attention that big-time shows like "Idol" and "Survivor" have dealt with for years, so it's time to step up the attention to detail.

As "Dancing with the Stars" tries to make the shift from gimmick to institution, it will have to cope with tougher competition, cranked-up expectations, and the underlying question of whether seeing someone slightly obscure doing the paso doble with a professional dancer is something anyone needs to see more than once. Master P is desperately hoping the answer to this last question is, "Yes."

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.

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