In theory, “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, concludes Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET) works differently from pure call-in voting shows like “American Idol.” Complex rules available at ABC’s web site explain how viewer voting is combined with scores from three “expert” judges to arrive at a final result. It seems like an awfully large coincidence, however, that on Tuesday night, for the second week in a row, the judges managed to score six dances perfectly so as to create a tie and leave it all in the hands of the viewer vote.
It’s not that call-in voting can’t lead to problems of its own. “Idol” struggles every year with conspiracy theories about blocked phone lines, record company machinations, and Ruben Studdard fans with magic radar devices that block cell phones in North Carolina. But for “Dancing,” much of the controversy has surrounded the judging. This is a show that got off to a fairly scandalous first season when scantily dressed upstart Kelly Monaco knocked off ultra-suave favorite John O’Hurley, in part because she received some eyebrow-raising high scores on the last night of the competition.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the show might elect to remove its own judges from the equation for the last couple of rounds and let the audience fight it out. This way, all the blame for any bad result gets dumped on the stupid fans next door, rather than at the feet of the show’s own judges, whose results are often difficult to understand except as suspense-building plot devices.
Judges too generous?
The final night of dancing was the first to ever include three dances for each celebrity — Emmitt Smith, the early surprise; and Mario Lopez, the early ringer. One round would be the two men dancing to the same piece of music, one would allow them to repeat their favorite dances of the season, and the last would be the famous “freestyle” round that brought the championship home to Drew Lachey last season.
The shared music turned out to be Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” billed as a song that could support a lot of different styles of dance. As it turned out, though, both Cheryl and Karina chose to choreograph sambas. Cheryl could show off Emmitt’s quick feet; Karina could show off Mario’s youthful wiggle.
Cheryl and Emmitt went first. With Emmitt in yet another of his brightly colored vests with shiny shoes to match, they did a fine samba, but something about it seemed a little too slow to show Emmitt off to his best advantage. The dance sometimes didn’t seem to be sitting entirely comfortably on the beat, and some part of Emmitt’s usual enthusiasm seemed to be missing in places. Nevertheless, the judges responded with great enthusiasm, rewarding Emmitt and Cheryl with three perfect 10s.
Mario and Karina performed a samba that was quite a bit crisper and more perfect, but also was somehow more synthetic. Emmitt may not have been up to his usual standards of excitement, but he is more genuine than Mario, who can after a while seem like a wind-up toy, doing the same thing every time. The judges weren’t bothered, though, and Carrie-Ann and Bruno both gave the samba 10s. Len, however, spotted Mario stepping on the wrong foot at some point, and he gave them only a nine. So after one round, Emmitt was up by a point.
The second round was the repeat dances from earlier in the season. Emmitt chose a good-humored mambo that earned him a 29 the first time around, with only Bruno holding back a point. Complete with its red costumes and intense rhythms, the mambo was very successful, and for the second round in a row, Emmitt and Cheryl took nothing but 10s, keeping the pressure on Mario very high.
Mario and Karina repeated their paso doble, which Mario admitted that he flubbed the first time by falling at the end and covering with a John Travolta move where he pointed out into space. It was refreshing to see Mario admit to a flaw, and it was hard not to admire some of the moves that were incorporated into the paso doble, including a few in which Mario showed off a lot of leg flexibility as well as posture that Len commended him on improving since the first time around. Unsurprisingly, given the enthused response, the dance got three 10s. Mario remained a single point behind Emmitt.
Surprise, surprise ... it’s a tieThe final round was the freestyle, which has always been a round judged more on style than on technique. Emmitt and Cheryl went for camp, choosing MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” While the dance was certainly a lot of fun, it was also admirable in that the silly skittering across the floor that was built into Emmitt’s half of the routine did, in fact, show off his strengths. As much as anything Emmitt has done all season, that dance made liars out of everyone who believes that a big football player can’t be graceful or light on his feet.
The dance also included a couple of very showy lifts, and as the judges gave their comments, it became clear how the evening would play out. While Len and Carrie-Ann had nothing but compliments, Bruno insisted that one of the lifts wasn’t entirely “clean.” There went the point, as savvy viewers everywhere undoubtedly knew — the point that Mario needed to catch Emmitt and end the evening in audience-soothing tie.
It turns out that Mario has spent the entire season feeling deprived, because he couldn’t do the robot, the running man, or his breakdancing routine during the dances he learned for the show. If Emmitt’s freestyle borrowed a single ’80s icon, Mario’s freestyle borrowed an entire swath of them, as he gave the unsettling impression of being possessed by the spirits of all of the Backstreet Boys and perhaps his “Saved By The Bell” character as well. While there was some quality dancing, there was also a lot of posing, and there were some age-inappropriate attempts to look cool.
But as you know by now, the judges wrapped it up in a tie by giving Mario three 10s, placing him and Karina in a dead heat with Emmitt and Cheryl. Now, it really will be up to the viewers. There aren’t too many good indicators of who’s getting more fan votes, but both men have a solid supply of partisans. Mario is more naturally talented, and he’s admitted that at least in some kinds of dancing, he’s substantially more trained. Emmitt is more charming and likable, not to mention more down-to-earth and more unlikely as a winner. It’s hard to know what might happen next.
What we do know is this: the judges don’t want to make the call. They want you to make the call. Because when you don’t get the ending you wanted, they don’t want you to send them letters.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.