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Underdogs spin to victory on ‘Dancing’

If you know someone who saw the first couple of episodes of "Dancing With The Stars" and then went on a European vacation and has been gone ever since, try this line out on her: "Kelly Monaco won." You're guaranteed a surprised look, if not a muttered swear word.

In case you weren't aware that Kelly was the underdog going into Wednesday night's finale, the producers were sure to mention it about 300 times to make sure you became aware. Despite having looked early on like a hoochie mama with the class of a corn dog, Kelly had slowly improved over the last couple of weeks and ultimately pulled her way into the finals quite respectably. But in the final showdown, she would face early favorites John O'Hurley and his partner Charlotte. Could Kelly possibly triumph?

The evening opened with both final teams performing their favorite dances, a serious error in judgment for a show in which novelty is everything. Most of us watching at home, after all, don't know a thing about ballroom dancing. Our play-by-play commentary isn't so much analytical ("They've really improved the line of their shoulders!") as it is grimly admiring ("Wow, I think I heard her hip pop from here"). We tune in to see a new outfit, to watch a new dance, and to see whether anyone falls down — the one way, incidentally, in which this series was a complete disappointment. Given how much we're all here for the spectacle, rehashing old dances was a surprisingly ill-considered way to start the finale.

But rehashing was the command, so John and Charlotte returned to the quickstep, performed to the surprisingly apt "Let's Face The Music And Dance." As opposed to, say, "Camptown Races" or "Little Bunny Foo-Foo," whose appropriateness would have matched the music choices in recent shows. John and Charlotte performed just as they did several weeks ago: elegantly and well, with few visible seams. With a little help from Patrick Swayze, who swooped in for a blink-and-you-missed-him cameo, John even managed to tame the more squirm-inducing parts of his persona and deliver exactly the charm his fans like to see from him.

Kelly and Alec followed by revisiting the samba that popped a strap on Kelly's costume two weeks ago, forcing her to muddle through while clutching her breasts as inconspicuously as possible. She did look better the second time around, and she certainly executed the final maneuver, in which she was flung face-down between her partner's legs, with substantially less visible terror. Still, she and Alec fell a couple of points behind in the judges' scores heading into the second half of the competition: a "freestyle" routine in which they could do whatever they chose.

John and Charlotte opened the freestyle portion with a routine perfectly plotted to capitalize on none of their strengths while emphasizing all of their weaknesses. An uncomfortable, phony-looking wiggle set to the oh-so-current "I'm So Excited" neglected John's smooth charm in favor of his awkwardly exaggerated mugging. The whole thing was silly and weak, but when the judges cheered and dropped three straight scores of nine out of ten for that odd spectacle, it was clear that uncritical affirmation was the order of the day.

When Kelly and Alec stepped out for their freestyle number, Kelly was showing about 80 percent of the skin she possesses, meaning she had learned a little about at least one of her strengths. Their routine incorporated a few lifts and spins that were fairly impressive, though Kelly looked tentative on several and may have tripped at the very end. Nevertheless, the judges rewarded Alec and Kelly with three tens. Three tens! A perfect score, and a head-scratcher indeed. The final dance of the series had brought the most surprising outcome yet. Yet due to the vaguely explained rank of audience votes, it wasn't yet clear who had won.

The obligatory filler between the performances and the final reveal of the winner was provided by a sequence in which previously eliminated contestants — Trista Sutter, Evander Holyfield, Rachel Hunter, and Joey McIntire — returned with their partners to remind us of… well, mostly of the reasons they were eliminated. Evander, in particular, looked even more uncomfortable than he did when he was getting regular practice, and it still appeared as if his enormous stomping feet might be a threat to nearby villages. Trista still looked like even touching the hand of a man not her husband made her feel guilty. Perhaps she would have been more comfortable if she had performed while encased entirely in plastic wrap.

And then, it was time for the big announcement. And the winners were… Kelly and Alec. A triumph of the underdog, a story of working hard to overcome great odds, and a fittingly silly ending for a show that managed to become a hit in spite of never really finding a consistent tone. It didn't seem to be a real dancing contest, as the judges hardly ever talked about technique; they talked about attitude and whether things were "hot" and who was the "king" and who was the "team to beat." They never really did, for instance, explain the rumba or whether "Endless Love" was an appropriate choice for one. At least on "American Idol," they sometimes talk about the singing — you know, the high notes, the low notes, the ever-present inability to remain on pitch.

"Dancing With The Stars," probably because it involved celebrities who aren't there to be entirely humiliated, often seemed to be more about storytelling than dancing. John was the elegant old hand with the wife-like partner nagging him to lose a few pounds. Trista was the earnest but ultimately reluctant young bride, Evander was the determined but hopeless galoot, and Joey brashly took the lead with his sweet, shy partner.

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And Kelly Monaco? Well, she was the dark horse. She was the one who didn't stand a chance, who found herself laughed at and counted out, but who managed to survive week after week, enduring even hilarious technical difficulties on her way to unlikely success. Her story was the only one that needed to end in victory, and end in victory it did.

Just as "American Idol" has a tendency to become a popularity contest based on who has the most compelling personality, "Dancing With The Stars" was a six-week tour of likable celebrities playing themselves in a reality show about their dancing experiences. Those perfect scores Kelly and Alec pulled for their final dance were patently silly, but their tale certainly earned high marks. They came, they stunk, they improved, they won. Not great dancing, but a great story indeed.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.

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