Pop Culture

The politics that keep Bristol shimmying on 'Dancing'

From the start, the 11th season of “Dancing With the Stars” was not going to be like any other. The ensuing weeks have lived up to that promise, thanks in large part to the dogged persistence of Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol, who has survived week after week despite not being considered a very skilled dancer.

“We like to get some people on the show who are unusual, and we thought Bristol would be interesting,” said executive producer Conrad Green. “We haven’t had someone quite like her before. She’s in that strange position of being a celebrity by association, having it thrust upon her rather than her seeking it. Dancing doesn’t come naturally to her, but week by week, she’s become more confident as a performer.”

That gradual evolution is irresistible for the show’s producers, who have been carefully crafting a story (as they do with all contestants). It goes something like this: Bristol is a plucky young woman who overcomes obstacles with charm and fortitude. Why, look, she’s willing to risk looking silly in front of millions of people by learning to dance on national television!

Emotional connection
This is not to suggest that scripting or staging is going on — the story being shaped around Bristol is undoubtedly broadly accurate. But reality TV producers, experts in the art of manipulation, know just how to edit that story so it pulls on all the right heartstrings — and an emotional connection to a story often trumps actual talent.

“As reality producers, we’re looking for characters and storylines,” said multiple Emmy-winner Terence Noonan, executive producer of TLC’s “DC Cupcakes.” “Look at who wins these shows: It’s the person with the back story. We want to connect with someone, so that’s what we root for. You couldn’t make the Palins up.”

“Reality TV is evolving into being about professional personalities,” said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School. “Having Bristol on that show is incredibly smart: She has a huge fan base and it points to the fact that you don’t have to have talent, you don’t have to be an actor, you just have to be a personality.”

Getting political
Yet Bristol’s continued ability to dodge elimination comes with a ripple effect. Her fame (or notoriety, depending on your perspective) is based in just two facts: She’s a teen mom, and she is Sarah Palin’s daughter. That means whatever spotlight she grabs invariably reflects back on her mother, while her mother’s popularity likely has something to do with her surprising ability to avoid elimination each week.

“I can say with certainty that if you’re a fan of Sarah Palin, you’re going to vote for her daughter,” said Galinsky. “‘Dancing’ is a healthy, wholesome show. We are seeing people think, ‘Wow, Bristol Palin has all these great traits, so her mom must have these qualities, too.’ Two years from now, people may not remember a dance routine, but they’ll remember she’s a risk-taker. ”

Politically partisan sites around the Web have taken up the call, exhorting readers to vote for Bristol. Of course, plenty of non-partisan sites get created or co-opted each season to generate bloc voting for other contestants, but in this case there’s a sense that the survival of a less-talented but enthusiastic Bristol will provide ballast to the views and opinions (and possibly the later political success) of her mother.

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Green said he hasn’t looked into the politicization of voting on his show, which doesn’t track why voters are calling in. Besides, “You might start watching with one intention, and then decide to vote for someone else,” he said. “The more participation in the show, the better.”

'I don't want politics in my entertainment television'
Still, it’s hard to ignore this season’s political turn. Even if Bristol’s mother hadn’t made multiple appearances in the audience, most viewers would have a hard time divorcing daughter from mother. And not everyone is pleased with the implications.

Viewer Bonnie Gordon of Pittsburgh, Pa., is a former dancer and regular viewer who has voted in the past, though not this season.

“I don’t want politics in my entertainment television,” she said, noting that her incentive for viewing is not Bristol. “I would watch political shows if I wanted to hear about politics.”

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“It is curious that her celebrity status is either from being Sarah Palin’s daughter, or being a tabloid subject,” said viewer Rich Kim of Burnsville, Minn. “By these standards we should expect to see Octomom on the next ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ ”

If it brings in viewers, Green is fine with all of it. “I’m happy with anything that gets people to participate in the show and watch,” he said. “There are passionate fans for everyone in the competition.”

And lest anyone think he’s partisan himself — Palin aside, “DWTS” also featured former Republican Congressman Tom DeLay in 2009 — Green said he’d be thrilled with a dancing Democrat: “I’ve asked Bill Clinton before and he’s always said no,” he said. “He would be brilliant.”

Green’s a realist about politicians, though. He knows they’re usually East Coast-based, too busy “and can be a bit pompous,” he said. “It takes a certain mischievous sense of yourself to do this show — and most politicians take themselves rather seriously.”

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That might explain why so few politicians have appeared on reality shows. TLC’s “19 and Counting” patriarch Jim Bob Duggar was an Arkansas state legislator before the show began airing, and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich bounced between “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” And don’t forget that “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” begins airing on Nov. 14 on TLC. Having a daughter on the No. 1 reality show in America clearly gave her a chance for some free advertising.

But the truth is, while political sites may be hoping Sarah Palin fans will root for her daughter, many viewers are just enjoying the dancing — good, bad and ugly.

“I have never let politics dictate how I vote on the show,” said Mary Lou Creamer of Marysville, Mich., who, like Gordon, is tuning in not because of Bristol. “I love ballroom dancing, but I also like that they can have some laughs on the show.”

There might be fewer laughs, however, if Bristol Palin actually walks away with that mirror ball trophy at the end of this season. Galinsky senses it would be damaging for the show — if not immediately, then in the long run.

“If she wins, the show loses credibility,” he said. “Even if people vote honestly, (producers) will have to redefine the show: Is it about the star or the dancing?”

Noonan, on the other hand, sees much more far-reaching repercussions: “I think if she wins, it says that Sarah Palin might just be President of the U.S. It says we are a country that is fueled by pop culture and media attention. Either way, I’m not sure anyone’s interested in how she dances.”

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.

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