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Rematch gave ‘Dancing’ its rhythm back

O'Hurley won in the end, but everyone got to enjoy the spotlight
/ Source: contributor

It's hard to win a rematch, especially when the winner is decided by the fans. The original also-ran always comes out with something to prove, and works a little bit harder to get that edge. And America loves an underdog.

That proved to be the case in ABC's “Dancing with the Stars” dance-off, a program that went according to script, from the first cha-cha-cha Tuesday night to the final minutes of the stretched-out results show Thursday. The stars shone, the audience burned up the phone lines, and John O'Hurley (J. Peterman of “Seinfeld” fame) and professional dance partner Charlotte Jorgensen eked out a close victory over soap-opera star Kelly Monaco and professional dancer Alec Mazo. According to the show's hosts, less than one percent of the vote separated the two pairs.

Monaco and Mazo were the original winners when the show ended its summer run in July, but the controversial finish — and more importantly, the resulting buzz that left the ABC brass convinced that bringing the couples together again would draw a large-enough audience to make the effort worthwhile — made a rematch inevitable. The roles were reversed this time: Monaco the champion, annoyed at the need to defend herself for the title she earned; O'Hurley the hungry challenger, who acted like he watched the tape of his defeat every morning for motivation.

The dance-off didn't make anyone forget about the Super Bowl, or even the “American Idol” winner. It might not even prompt “Monaco-O'Hurley III — The Dance War to Settle the Score” (though if any of ABC's new shows go into the tank quickly, that would be a natural way to fill a couple of hours).

Nor were the stakes particularly high. The grand prize wound up being a $126,000 donation to O'Hurley's designated charity, Golfers against Cancer, while Monaco got $124,000 for the Bush-Clinton Hurricane Katrina fund.   In other words, O'Hurley got a whopping $2,000 more for his victory than he would have for coming in second.

But this really wasn't about the charity.  Instead, this summer battle of B-list celebrities really became something of a competition, summed up nicely in the shows final moments when Monaco stood sullenly, her hands clasped, unable to bring herself to clap for O'Hurley's win.

It's tough to call anyone a loser here, though. Everyone involved in the finale came out ahead.

O'Hurley was just a memorable bit player on “Seinfeld” and is now seen most often on reruns and ads for insurance companies, but became the real star of this show. It was an extended stay in the spotlight for him, and can't hurt his career any.

Similarly Monaco, a daytime soap star without much face time in primetime, was exposed (almost literally in one episode because of wardrobe malfunction, and almost totally during the results show in an outfit that must have made the censors pause) to an entirely new audience. She mentioned on Tuesday's show that she's been recognized a lot more often since the series began, and no wonder — she's reaching people who don't happen to be watching TV at 3 p.m. on weekday afternoons. And her storyline was arguably the most compelling on the show; seemingly in danger of being voted off every week, moving on by the narrowest of margins … and then suddenly being crowned the champion. At least temporarily.

Competitive dance, which gets roundly laughed off the airwaves when its participants talk about it possibly becoming an Olympic sport down the line, revealed itself to a wide audience as something that's a lot tougher than what most see at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Is it a sport? Probably not, but it would be tough for anyone to watch much of the competition and think that it was easy to do.

And ABC took what seemed like a nutty idea (B-List celebrities, competitive dancing and relatively low stakes? Not exactly the obvious winning combination) and turned it into a successful franchise. Who knows who'll be on the show next time around … perhaps Wayne Knight, Newman on “Seinfeld,” will square off against Susan Lucci?

Avoiding the easy jokes“Dancing with Stars” succeeded, while other reality shows filled with fading personalities looking to wring every second out of their 15 minutes of fame failed, because ABC astutely kept the series from becoming a joke.

It would have been easy to market the show that way — look at the former heavyweight champ (Evander Holyfield), Bachelorette (Trista Rehn), supermodel (Rachel Hunter) and New Kid (Joey McIntyre), all eliminated earlier in the competition — try and not trip over themselves on the dance floor! Most shows with those types of celebrities market the embarrassment factor, either blatantly or subtly. The whole point of tuning in is often to see what random thing one of the has-beens will do to get attention.

Somehow, even in the episode where Holyfield roamed the dance floor in a yellow outfit bright enough to require sunglasses, this show managed to avoid becoming too fixated on what its celebrity participants couldn't do. And the celebrities themselves took the premise and ran with it, legitimately acting like people trying to win. Whether as a result of competitive pride or a desire not to embarrass themselves on national television, it seemed like everyone took this seriously.

The bottom line is that whether it's the Super Bowl or the cha-cha, nobody likes to lose. And the real bottom line, for the network, is that everyone loves a good controversy. Which is why “Dancing with Stars” is returning for a second season, and why it also wouldn't be a shock if we saw O'Hurley and Monaco have to settle another dispute on the dance floor down the line.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.