Singing and dancing are as natural a combination as peanut butter and jelly, so it’s not surprising that “So You Think You Can Dance” has taken a page from singing sister show "American Idol" and carved out a niche for itself on the summer TV schedule.
Both singing and dancing are activities most people believe they can do very well, but one night in any karaoke bar or at any wedding reception in the country is enough to prove otherwise.
In addition to crushing the dreams of thousands of delusional auditioners, each show provides a chance at fame for the winner. In “So You Think You Can Dance,” however, that fame tends to be temporary.
Unlike the “American Idol” winners who go straight from bantering with Ryan Seacrest to a spot on the radio, or the “Dancing With The Stars” champions who can use their fame to scoop up some B-list roles, dancers spend their time in relative obscurity. Few of those who weekly speed-dial in support of their favorites will ever buy a ticket to see the winner onstage. "So You Think You Can Dance" also can’t count on viewers seeing past champions on TV or hearing them on the radio to enhance the brand name.
Never fear. The show was created by the same folks who bring “Idol” to the airwaves every January, so they have a strong background in successful reality show management.
A large part of that management comes in the selection of the judges, each of whom has to entertain and inspire viewers to watch each week. The show has been successful by taking the established formula from the “Reality Shows For Dummies” handbook, adding a couple of wrinkles, and made the program a cure for the traditional TV wasteland that is summer.
The Brit and the bombshell
Two of the three "Dance" judges are the same each week, and both fit one of the established archetypes that every reality show seems to have.
It’s a little-known requirement under U.S. immigration laws that one judge on every program has to have a foreign accent. Nigel Lythgoe serves as the show’s requisite British judge. He’s this show’s answer to Simon Cowell, but usually far less grumpy and without Simon’s propensity for wacky similes. He doesn’t have a long list of notable cutdowns like his “Idol” rival, and a poor performance tends to be greeted with something like “that simply wasn’t good enough” rather than a comparison to a late-night drunken Holiday Inn performance in Tampa, or similar Simon example.
Lythgoe also one of the show’s creators, so he’s everybody’s boss. That may be one reason that his words carry a lot of weight. Or it could just be the accent.
Joining Lythgoe every week is Mary Murphy, who combines the wacky demeanor of Paula Abdul with the manic commentary of “Dancing With the Stars” judge Bruno Tonioli to provide an experience unlike any other found in the genre. She yells, she goes off on tangents, and her feedback leaves contestants scratching their heads in confusion at least twice an episode.
But underneath the persona, Murphy knows what she’s talking about. A former competitive dancer and trainer, she’s in her first season as a full-time judge after switching between that role and a spot as a choreographer on the first two seasons. If she doesn’t like a performer, she’ll calmly explain what went wrong and then yell at the audience for booing her. As a graduate of the Randy Jackson “keeping it real” school of criticism, she’s all about the brutal honesty when contestants fail to step it up.
But she shrieks and shouts when she gets excited about something, and she likes pretty much everything. Providers of headache medicine and closed-captioning are the big winners now that she’s a permanent member of the staff.
Lythgoe and Murphy are interesting, but don’t stand out among the others in the reality show judging genre. What sets the show apart is that it has been able to make the guest judge format work, something that has eluded its rivals.
Guest judges have been tried before on programs like “American Idol,” but only as an addition to the established faces, and rarely for a positive effect.
“Idol” guest judges are almost always uniformly positive, like even perkier versions of Abdul, and don’t add much to the commentary. Occasionally, “So You Think You Can Dance” falls into this trap as well, such as it did earlier in the season when Debbie Allen guest-starred.
Usually, however, the guest judge is one of the choreographers who otherwise would be working with the contestants during the week. Perhaps because they’ve been close to the dancers since the first auditions, they’re generally willing to offer more critical feedback when warranted.
Adding to the drama is that each judge has a different specialty, and their own favorites among the contestants. This adds a degree of randomness to the eliminations, since the judges are the ones who actually decide who gets eliminated.
While viewers can spare their favorite pairs, the dancers with the least votes aren’t a lock to be eliminated, since the judges can choose any man and woman from the bottom three to go home. Instead of millions of viewers deciding the outcome, it’s up to just three people. Since all of the remaining finalists are excellent dancers, personal preferences can be key, which means that a dancer’s fate may hinge on whether the guest judge likes them or not.
All throughout the auditions, choreographer Mia Michaels praised two of the final 20 contestants, Ricky Palomino and Ashlee Langas. She called Ricky her favorite male in the competition, and said that if there was dancing in heaven, it would look like Ashlee.
However, she wasn’t the guest judge during the first week; that was Dan Karaty, with a less positive view of the duo. And when Ricky and Ashlee landed in the bottom three, there were no fans among the jury to save them.
Sometimes that extra chance can be huge; Dominic, another of the males, was in grave danger of being voted off in week one but has since become one of the judges’ favorites.
That unpredictability helps make the Thursday results show the best of its kind. Nobody can be sure what’s going to happen, because it’s a different panel deciding the dancers’ fate each week. Judging from the ratings, that’s a good thing for the show’s future.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.