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LACHEY, BURKE
Reuters
Drew Lachey and Cheryl Burke dazzled the crowd last week with their cowboy-themed freestyle dance.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/7/2006 12:58:36 PM ET 2006-03-07T17:58:36
COMMENTARY

The producers of "Dancing With The Stars" are undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief after Sunday's finale. While last year's conclusion sparked controversy eventually leading to a grudging "dance-off," this year's win by Drew Lachey and his partner Cheryl Burke will go down much more easily with viewers, and rightly so.

Drew and Cheryl utterly dominated Thursday's interminably long two-hour show, so they were in the lead with the judges cruising into Sunday's interminably long two-hour show. After dumping even more endless filler on the audience, the show finally showed a little dancing, as each couple took one more shot at scoring with the judges.

Jerry Rice and Anna executed a very nice cha-cha, in which Jerry looked comfortable, confident, and like he was concentrating on his partner and not on counting, as he so often has. His footwork was remarkably crisp, and he demonstrated that he is the only person in the history of this show to go from Guy Who Can't Dance to Guy Who Can Totally Dance, and if they had a trophy for that, he would walk away with it. Jerry received straight 9s, his first set for anything other than his goofy freestyle.

Stacy Keibler and Tony then stepped up for a samba, but not before Stacy noted her bad ankle, just in case anyone was tempted to think she just didn't dance very well — or particularly that Tony didn't choreograph very well. Their samba was thoroughly pedestrian, though with plenty of booty-shaking, and the dancing was not only substantially less complex than what Drew would soon present, but it was less complex than what Jerry had presented. As has often been the case, Stacy's scores weren't related to her actual performance, and she received a perfect score of 30 despite a totally ordinary showing.

Wacky scoring
As Drew and Cheryl stepped up, it was difficult not to wonder whether the judges were straining to keep Stacy and Drew close, given that he came in with a lead and her dance had been scored so generously. Unfortunately for those who wanted a spectacularly close finish, Drew and Cheryl's jive was lively, intricate, and infectiously crowd-pleasing. Suspicions that all was not on the up-and-up undoubtedly soared when they received straight 9s for a dance more impressively performed, more difficult, and more energetic than Stacy and Tony's samba.

Drew looked visibly irritated, but the fact remained that because Stacy's freestyle on Thursday night was so awful that Carrie Ann gave her an 8, there was no saving Stacy from second place in the judges' scoring, one point behind Drew. Nothing could have justified an 8 for Drew's jive, and while Bruno undoubtedly would have loved to give Stacy an 11 for her samba, they didn't give him a paddle for that.

Thus, the judges did not tie Drew and Stacy. Instead, Drew was in first place, Stacy was in second, and Jerry was in third. Now it would come down to viewer votes. When host Tom Bergeron announced that the third-place team would now be thrown out, ears of attentive fans perked up. From who came in third, it might be possible to tell who came in first.

Indeed, when Stacy was eliminated, finishing in third place — an outcome that once would have seemed impossible — fans who had parsed the scoring all week knew that Drew had to have won. The math is boring, but suffice it to say that Jerry needed a specific set of circumstances to win, and Stacy's ouster meant it didn't happen. It immediately looked like Drew had done this math for himself, because his face turned to one of relaxed excitement as he prepared to wait out the additional endless filler before the announcement of the winner.

Indeed, if anything marred the two-part, four-hour, Thursday-Sunday finale — which actually included some pretty enjoyable dancing — it was the greedy decision to stretch what could have been done in one hour into four. Over and over, we heard the story of every couple and how they got here. Over and over, we saw clips of earlier dances. Yes, we remember Drew and Cheryl's paso doble. You showed it to us the other night. And they danced it again the other night. Yes, we remember Stacy's jive, BOTH TIMES. We even remember Kenny Mayne, we promise — can we move on now?

The show did indeed drag the old eliminated celebrities back on stage, including Tatum O'Neal, who looked like she still hated her partner, and Master P, who looked — believe it or not — even less prepared for one minute of dancing than when he was on the show.

It was lovely, though, to see Tia Carrere and Giselle Fernandez and Lisa Rinna again, and to see the obviously enduring nature of their platonic, married-lady crushes on their hot dance partners. Tia and Maksim shaking their groove things to "Jailhouse Rock" at the end of a group number was almost enough to make up for the number of times viewers were forced to hear Bruno mention Stacy's legs.

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By the time the announcement of the winner approached, even host Tom Bergeron was making jokes about how long it had taken to get here. Probably the best line of the night, however, went to Drew, during an interview in which he said, "It's an ugly trophy, but you still want to win it." And it is an ugly trophy, too — a disco ball on top of a post, basically. Why does anyone care?

Well, for the same reason they care about most competitive shows like this — people want the horse they've bet on to finish first. This is the second season of "Dancing" in which a celebrity who seemed like an early favorite was picked off by one who improved from week to week, and there's no question that improvement makes a better story than a ringer.

For all its silliness and filler and Master P, the season overall was oddly satisfying. Stacy was perfect and chilly and her partner seemed kind of obnoxious, and they went out very late. Jerry was a disaster at first, and overachieved to a preposterous degree just by being in the final two. Drew was a hard-working, talented-but-not-brilliant guy who got along like crazy with his headstrong, very young partner under the watchful eye of his enormously pregnant wife.

And when Bergeron finally got around to announcing the winner and bringing the season to an end, Drew got the win that he had earned, both over the season and especially in this final four-hour stall-a-thon. Had it not been packed to the gills with Mary J. Blige, physical therapy footage, and more opportunities for George to be a ham and Tatum to be a sourpuss, the whole thing would have been even more fun.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.

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