If you’ve shopped for sequins, self-tanner, or sparkle pants recently, you know that supplies are shrinking, and that can mean only one thing: another season of “Dancing With The Stars” is about to launch. Performance shows begin Monday, March 19 on ABC, and results shows begin with the first elimination the following Tuesday, March 26.
Expectations are high after last season, in which unctuous smoothie Mario Lopez was ultimately outdone by sunny underdog . It also included several metaphorical tangos of intrigue, from reported romances between celebrities and their partners to the abrupt exit of Sara Evans during her .
Not eager to see Fox parading around with “Dancing’s” head on a spike, ABC wisely moved the performance shows from Tuesday to Monday for this season, avoiding the behemoth that is “American Idol.” Still, fourth seasons can be about the time that high-concept competition shows start to really flag — “The Apprentice,” “The Amazing Race,” and even had ho-hum fourth seasons. Can “Dancing” keep chugging along, or is it about time for a slump?
The key will be, as it always is, the cast. Favorites are notoriously difficult to find — few would have picked Emmitt Smith as the heir apparent to Drew Lachey — but smart viewers can dig up a few clues about what might be coming.
Boxer Laila Ali (daughter of Muhammad Ali, of course) has a few things going for her beyond a gender-unusual sports profile and a famous name. Evander Holyfield aside, athletes tend to do reasonably well on this show, not only because they score better than average for agility and balance, but because they have discipline. Ali is beautiful, which never hurts in a popularity contest, and she’s paired with Maksim Chmerkovskiy, the professional dancer with the most squealingly devoted fan base. Maks seems due to make a run, and this might be his chance.
Billy Ray Cyrus now appears on “Hannah Montana,” and he has the advantage of the country appeal that carried Sara Evans last season. That dynamic might actually make up for the enemies he should rightfully have as a result of his infliction upon the world of “Achy Breaky Heart.” Prediction: It will not take judge Bruno Tonioli long to make a very ugly “Achy Breaky” joke.
There has to be a large-framed retired male athlete in every season, and this season’s is Clyde Drexler. “The Glide” may or may not be as graceful dancing as he was playing basketball, but like country-music fans, professional sports fans have proved to be a very valuable group to have on your side, at least in the case of football players. Whether NBA fans are as loyal remains to be seen.
It seems odd that Joey Fatone still lists his profession as “NSync Star,” since the band made its last album in 2001. Nevertheless, the “former teen idol and/or boy-band member” spot has to be filled by someone, and even if you’re “the less cute one,” it might as well be you. While Fatone probably can’t get Justin Timberlake to hoot for him in the audience, don’t be surprised if you see Lance Bass. Nostalgia acts in general and boy-band members in particular have strong track records, so don’t count Fatone out.
Every season needs a lovely blonde. Not only was Shandi Finnessey Miss USA 2004, but she co-hosts “Lingo” on the Game Show Network, so that’s two reasons you’ve probably never heard of her. Her semi-obscurity gives Finnessey one interesting quality, which is that she will rise and fall based on her actual ability. Will she be season two’s high-flying Stacy Keibler, or will she be season three’s almost invisible Shanna Moakler? Finnessey has every opportunity to bootstrap herself into contention, but nothing to coast on if she doesn’t come out of the gate strong.
Leeza Gibbons seems to have been around since the entertainment industry was invented, and she’s enormously familiar to precisely the same audience that watches this show. Paired with Tony Dovolani, who lucked out with Keibler in the second season and bombed out with Evans in the third, Leeza seems likely to slide into that Giselle Fernandez role where everyone would really like to see her do well, precisely because she’s not 22 years old or a recent beauty-pageant winner.
Heather Mills is probably the most controversial personality the show has invited. (Jerry Springer is only superficially controversial.) Her bitter divorce from Paul McCartney would make her a lightning rod by itself, but she’s also going to be “Dancing’s” first disabled celebrity. While it was relatively easy to understand how contestants with artificial limbs handled “The Amazing Race” or “Survivor,” it is more difficult for the uninitiated to picture how the revealing costumes, tricky footwork, and other familiar aspects of “Dancing” will be managed, so Mills will undoubtedly get a lot of attention early on. Fortunately for her, she’s paired with the classy Jonathan Roberts, a pro who made both Rachel Hunter and Fernandez, neither of whom were cookie-cutter, willowy young things, look like a million bucks.
Apolo Anton Ohno, who was a hot ticket a few years ago as an Olympian, seems like he should be a good bet. Speed skating would appear to involve lightness and balance. But will his athletic ability translate into dancing? It’s hard to say. Not the typical giant, bulky athlete the show has favored in the past, Ohno is the compact, wiry sort of athlete, and if nothing else, we can all just watch that soul patch.
Paulina Porizkova is, in some ways, the ideal “Dancing With The Stars” contestant. She’s pretty, she seems likable, and she’s not too busy. One of a wave of models who married unattractive rock stars in the mid-‘80s but one of very few to stay married (to Ric Ocasek of The Cars), Porizkova has managed to age in the semi-public eye without seeming to cling to “former supermodel” status as a way to stay famous. People may be ready to see her again, and those who grew up in her heyday will remember her as one of the earliest supermodels whose name was known even by many who didn’t care about clothes.
John Ratzenberger, whom you know as Cliff from “Cheers,” stepped in on short notice after “The Sopranos’” , citing the punishing rehearsal process. Ratzenberger is the natural heir to the Jerry Springer/George Hamilton throne of senior wackiness, meaning he’s likely to place surprisingly high compared to his ability, be praised by judge Carrie-Ann Inaba for being himself, and be eliminated several stops shy of the finale. Some things are comfortable in their sheer predictability.
Which brings us, as it must, to “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and to pop-culture icon . As great as it was last season for “Dancing” to land Lopez and leverage everyone’s nostalgic affection for “Saved By The Bell,” it’s much better to land Ziering — perhaps the cheesiest cast member from the cheesiest show to ever suggest Tori Spelling should graduate from high school. Ziering oozes a sense of goofball camp, and having done surprisingly little acting in the more than 15 years since “90210” ended, he’s undoubtedly surprised to find himself the center of attention again. Never underestimate the power of “90210.”
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.