After 10 seasons, it's surprisingly easy to see the way a season of "Dancing With the Stars" is going to shake out. Once you've seen everyone dance one time, you can start to separate them into the favorites, the mushy middle and the total cannon fodder that will be unceremoniously booted in whatever order the fans deem appropriate. It doesn't correlate perfectly with judges' scores because fans will do what fans will do, as 10 seasons of this show have demonstrated.
Aside from the super-awkward debut of Brooke Burke as Tom Bergeron's co-host, the night started strong from the first dancer. NFL star Chad Ochocinco managed a cha-cha that was energetic, charismatic and didn't involve any of the nonsensical theatrics in which he sometimes engages (like changing his name to "Ochocinco"). The NFL has an imposing record on "Dancing," and Ochocinco can safely settle into his locker and unpack his things, because he's not going anywhere. He didn't have the highest scores, but in terms of demonstrating what it takes to stick around, he did it.
The other frontrunners are the two "ringers" — the ones with the most obviously relevant experience. One is skater Evan Lysacek, and the other is Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls. Surprisingly, Lysacek had some problems adjusting to being on a floor instead of on ice: His feet were notably clumsy in places, but anything that resembled skating — like spinning, for instance — he totally nailed.
Scherzinger, on the other hand, earned almost universal praise — except for some skeptical comments from judge Len Goodman that came off as halfhearted attempts to make her look like less of a shoo-in. Even this early, she seems like almost a lock for the finals, and that means judge Bruno Tonioli will be making a lot of pussycat jokes before the end of the season.
Around the middle are the ones who are good but not great, amiable but not intensely likable, the ones where it's too soon to tell what will happen to them. ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews and "most downloaded woman" Pamela Anderson both did spicy cha-chas, with Andrews seemingly struggling with the high-heeled shoes and Anderson playing enthusiastically off her big-haired, generously proportioned image in a way she'll have to find a way to vary if she's going to go very far.
A little farther down the ladder, actresses Shannen Doherty and Niecy Nash — very different types — were both OK. Nash has much more personality — telling partner Louis van Amstel that she likes herself as she is, and "If I lose my jiggly parts, you're gonna get it."
Doherty, on the other hand, remains something of a sourpuss, years after she had the same reputation during her gossip heyday, but her dancing certainly isn't terrible.
Things go downhill from there. Former "Bachelor" star Jake Pavelka seems like a very nice guy, but he hasn't spontaneously grown a personality in the last few weeks, and he's not a natural dancer. Jake tries very hard, and is clearly one of those guys who will try to fight a lack of natural ability to the death through earnest hard work, but it's not the kind of dancing people pick up the phone for, and the Viennese waltz he did this week is likely to be his best dance. The Jake Pavelka jive is not anything anyone needs to see.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, at 80 years old, is the sentimental favorite. In fact, Burke put her metaphorical gun to the audience's head, saying, "If you love an American hero, then give them your support!" But there's still the fact that much of his cha-cha involved walking, standing, and occasionally taking a step or two in time with the music. Buzz will have his fans who love him for his place in history, but he's not going to win any on the basis of his actual dancing, and he got the judges' lowest scores of the night.
Uber-famous reality mom Kate Gosselin didn't have it much easier. She seemed miserable in rehearsals (partner Tony Dovolani essentially warned her that she wouldn't get votes if she looked like she hated being there), and in performance, her Viennese waltz was stilted and dull. If she's going to hang around, Kate will apparently be stuck relying on all the goodwill she's earned in recent years. (Cue the sound of crickets chirping.)
But the guy who's probably in the most trouble is former "All My Children" star Aiden Turner. Turner is one of the least well-known people in the entire field, and it turns out that he dances with all the verve and flexibility of an only slightly younger Buzz Aldrin, whom he beat out by one point. Perhaps a little too reliant on soap-opera acting and the making of sexy faces, Turner somehow looked both haughty and terrified, and when he found himself compared to Kenny Mayne, he undoubtedly realized he is not long for this competition if the judges have anything to say about it.
So get used to Nicole, Ochocinco and Evan. And don't get too attached to any astronauts or soap stars, because they may not be around long.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.