Most “Dancing With The Stars” performance finales end the same way: the judges praise everyone (or at least two out of three final couples), and the whole thing is thrown to the audience vote as a relatively close contest. Monday night, the season seven finale was different.
From the opening blast of the horns in the band, the judges made it clear that Brooke Burke, who’s been the strongest technical dancer all season but never the most interesting or creative, should be the winner. They scored her well ahead of Lance Bass and Warren Sapp, giving the men a difficult hill to climb with the audience vote if they hope to beat her. They limited their praise of everyone else, especially Lance (who would seem to have the best chance to win), and spoke about Brooke with hyperbolic excitement.
Of course, there was about a half-hour of time-wasting before any of this even started. First, we had to look back on past performances, which are already paid for and therefore have a high profit margin. Remember Warren doing the paso doble in a costume from “The Matrix”? Remember how Brooke’s well-executed but oddly boring quickstep set the stage for her entire season? Remember Lance and Lacey’s mambo, which just happened? Sure you do.
And if you spent the season wishing the dancers were all basically the same, only shorter, then you were undoubtedly thrilled with the crowning of “junior champions” Craig and Samantha. The winners of the kids’ division danced brilliantly but seemed a bit thrown by Tom Bergeron’s spelunking into their personalities in search of something he could banter with.
The actual finalists didn’t start competing until after the show was re-announced at the 8:30 point, when the announcer guy gave the “Dahncing With The Stahs!” title again, as if the first half-hour didn’t count as part of the show, even to the people who had just aired it. Real competition began with a “samba smackdown,” a group dance in which each couple danced in sequence, and then all six of them danced together.
After the filler, finally, dancingBrooke and Derek, up first, were predictably very good. As they are always very good. Very good, and very dry. It’s impossible to argue with Brooke’s status as the technical frontrunner, but it’s been stressed over and over that the samba is a party dance, and Brooke never dances like she’s at a party. Maybe a stage show on “The Love Boat.”
Her technical skill made for an interesting contrast with Lance and Lacey, who were not as perfect, perhaps, but who were far more high-energy and incorporated more interesting and witty elements into their samba. Warren and Kym were overmatched as always if you pay attention only to the dancing, but again — you don’t pay attention only to the dancing. It’s a samba, and Warren? Warren is pretty much always at a party. Warren brings the party with him.
Brooke and Derek scored a 28, with 9s from Len and Carrie Ann and a 10 from Bruno. Lacey and Lance got two 9s and an 8, giving them a 26. Warren and Kym scored a 25, so the three couples were still fairly tightly grouped.
It was in the freestyle that the heavy hand of the judges began to fall. Brooke and Derek opened with a dance that was wisely chosen to sell Brooke as more fun than her disastrous jitterbug from last week would suggest — a reenactment of “You’re The One That I Want” from “Grease,” right down to the tearing off of Brooke’s demure dress to reveal pink hot pants. In the dress, Brooke seemed stiff and a little slow in remarkable defiance of the music, but once she got into the sparkle pants, she was fabulous. Isn’t that always the way? The lifts were intricate, the footwork was precise, and Len wound up declaring it the best freestyle he had ever seen. Their perfect score was not suspenseful.
Lance and Lacey followed with just about what you’d expect: a hip-hop routine incorporating lots of acrobatics, along with enormous energy and the driving beat of the Run-DMC classic “It’s Tricky.” It even ended with a funny little hat-tip to last week, when Lance lost a shoe. Oddly, Carrie Ann Inaba chided them for incorporating a few measures of cha-cha, Len Goodman said he liked it quite a bit, and Bruno Tonioli said he liked it very much — and then all three gave it the same score: 9s across the board.
Warren and Kym closed the show with a “Proud Mary” freestyle. Warren executed some very nice lifts — doing it as the muscle, not the ballast — but there wasn’t a whole lot more than that to his dancing. Nevertheless, the judges couldn’t say enough about how entertaining he was, and they handed him a 28 — with the 10 coming from Len, who openly admitted it was for entertainment and not for dancing. So that put him in a tie with Lance for the evening, and both of them a solid five points behind Brooke. At this stage, that’s a surprisingly big deficit.
There’s one more dance tomorrow night that will be scored by the judges, but for the moment, they’ve made their preference clear: they want Brooke. And now, they’ll have to wait and see what the audience wants. Brooke has a significant advantage at this stage, but audiences are fickle and finales are hard to call. If Brooke has strong fan support, she’ll walk off with it, but if not, it’s genuinely anybody’s game.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to Msnbc.com