Sunday night, ABC decided to roll out the new cast of “Dancing With The Stars” during its regular prime-time lineup. They were going for a big splash, but the selection of celebrities for the eighth season wound up looking like one of the weakest casts ever. It’s not that the new group is any more obscure than those of seasons past — obscurity is part of the fun, after all — but it seems packed with people who are unlikely to bring the kind of appeal that causes fans of the show to get attached to them. Let’s go through the list.
The famous founder: Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer — where he hasn’t actually worked since 1985. Company founders aren’t especially familiar “celebrities” to begin with unless they are glamorous womanizers or Donald Trump, neither of which seems applicable. And Wozniak seems like a particularly strange choice, given that the closest thing to a hint of dancing ability is that he is a Segway polo enthusiast. (That’s right: Segway polo.)
The spectacle: Steve-O, a cast member on MTV’s “Jackass.” Unfortunately, the crossover audience between “Jackass” and “Dancing With The Stars” wouldn’t seem to be especially sizable. Furthermore, given that it’s been less than a year since his very public hospitalization with some apparent combination of substance-abuse and mental-health problems, it’s not clear that Steve-O’s “crazy” personality would have much whimsical appeal, and should that personality not emerge, who’s going to care about him? What does a shock performer have left if he’s not shocking?
The athletes: In some ways, the most standard-issue “Dancing” recruits of the season are the athletes, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson and former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Johnson seems like a good bet, what with the dance elements and body control inherent in gymnastics, but Taylor goes under “unpredictable,” given that football players tend to have strong fan support and skills anywhere between sublime and ridiculous. They do have familiarity going for them.
The tabloid staple: Denise Richards — fresh off her weird and widely panned reality show “It’s Complicated.” The problem with casting Richards is that celebrity gossip is one thing (think Heather Mills and all the legal wrangling from her marriage to Paul McCartney), but Richards is both overexposed and sort of … creepy, in that she seems to compulsively disclose the details of her personal, and fairly ugly, family crises. An almost entirely unsympathetic figure in her own story, in spite of having been married to the also very unsympathetic Charlie Sheen, Richards doesn’t seem likely to draw much support.
The familiar face: Actor David Alan Grier, probably the closest thing the cast has to a non-tabloid Hollywood celebrity, given that he at least has a current show (“Chocolate News”) on the air. Unfortunately, however, he’s one of those comic actors who gives the impression of being perpetually “on,” and that can make it hard to root for a guy. Ask Adam Carolla.
The exact replica: Apparently, the show enjoyed Leeza Gibbons, who competed a couple of seasons back, because they’re following up with “Access Hollywood” host Nancy O’Dell, who occupies almost precisely the same entertainment-reporter spot that Gibbons did. You can bet there will be a lot of talk about how O’Dell wants to tell all the ladies over 40 that they can do anything they want to do, but this show has a way of proving that not to be true, and O’Dell can likely expect the same mid-run exit that lovable over-40 contestants have had in the past, from Gisele Fernandez to Gibbons herself.
The rapper: Rapper Lil’ Kim, who will, along with Johnson, make for a very short season. Her last album was in 2005, and again, whether her fan base is heavily into “Dancing With The Stars” isn’t clear. She’s won enough awards to qualify as one of the more successful people in the new pack, but…honestly, that’s not saying all that much. Her career certainly suggests she’ll feel the music, but like Denise Richards, Lil’ Kim has a history in the public eye that’s sometimes been more troubling than entertaining — including a perjury conviction in 2005, for which she spent time in jail. Might her presence just seem … uncomfortable?
The couples: The first couple gimmick is the casting of pop singer Jewel and her husband, rodeo star Ty Murray, who will compete against each other. Of course, most people have never seen this couple together, and it isn’t as if anyone expects real feuding to break out in the middle of the mambo round.
Worse though, is the casting of Chuck Wicks, the country-singer boyfriend of Julianne Hough, one of the show’s professional dancers, who will reportedly be his partner. The real-life couple angle could work in their favor, but Wicks has had a very, very brief career, to the point where the show may never have featured a person with a shorter list of accomplishments.
The nostalgia act: One bright spot for children of the ‘80s may be the casting of Belinda Carlisle, former lead singer of the Go-Go’s. Carlisle is exactly the kind of nostalgia act people sometimes like to see again, particularly if she does well, so there’s some promise there, anyway. Maybe?
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The naked cameo: Perhaps the most depressing and absurd piece of casting is actor Gilles Marini, who is here for one reason and one reason only. Are you ready? He plays the naked man showering next door to Samantha (Kim Cattrall) in the “Sex And The City” movie.
That’s it. That’s his stardom in a nutshell. If he turns out to be an absolutely fantastic dancer, then he might stay around, but no matter how long he stays, he’ll be somebody with no record to speak of. There’s not the warm, nostalgic response to old Olympians or the familiar goofy sensation of long-lost actors, or the feeling of a major star from an under-respected genre (like soaps) coming into his or her own in prime time. There’s just a guy who has no real reason to be there.
So there you have it: 13 contestants and no easygoing, good-sport choices like last season’s Lance Bass and Susan Lucci. Perhaps Marini will turn out to be secretly funny, or perhaps Denise Richards is misunderstood by everyone, but it seems more likely that it’s not going to be a season that’s going to set any records for cast likability.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.
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