It helps fill out 90 minutes of “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Tuesdays/Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET) when there is a bit of election coverage to contend with. In fact, on Tuesday night, the show went ahead and acknowledged that it was competing with election night, almost daring viewers to come fully to terms with the fact that they were watching competitive celebrity cha-cha instead of contemplating the state of their country.
Rather surprisingly, given that results-show performances tend to be mediocre in quality, “Dancing” opened the evening by reliving such non-spectacular moments as Rod Stewart performing “Hot Legs” in his purple jacket. A civic-minded person would have been forgiven for suspecting that ABC was actually encouraging her to turn the channel back to the coverage on CNN. The “Billie Jean” student dance and Lionel Richie followed, and then it was time for a commercial, only seven minutes into the show. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather watch Wolf Blitzer? In fact, ultimately, nearly the entire first half-hour of the show was consumed by clips and replays.
And then finally, it was time for the competition to begin. We were reminded of Monique Coleman’s loss last week, and the way it left behind only Joey Lawrence, Emmitt Smith, and Mario Lopez — three men looking for two spots in the finals next week. This was again a night where each finalist would perform two dances, but this time, they would be allowed to select their own Latin and ballroom dances.
Mario and Karina kicked things off with a tango. You may recall that a few weeks ago, Mario was chastised by the judges for performing an unconventional, “rule-breaking” tango that Carrie-Ann went so far as to suggest was disrespectful to the show. Or to the judges, or to the tango, or something of that sort. Mario explained in the pre-performance footage that he wanted to do the tango specifically in order to redeem himself, proving that it was in fact possible to wring a little bit more drama out of the “Rebel Mario” storyline.
The dance itself, performed to “Whatever Lola Wants,” was impressive. While Mario often relies on flash and dimples, there was no denying that the tango was intricate in its footwork and snappy in execution. Lucky enough to nail down some normal music, Mario and Karina didn’t squander it, and they were richly rewarded by the judges. By the time the comments from an enthusiastic panel were over, it was clear that Mario was probably going to get the first perfect scores of the season, and indeed, he did.
President of Zambia a fan?And then, after a commercial, Tom Bergeron announced that the president of Zambia was in the audience. It was at this point that the show took on even more of a sense of unreality than usual.
Emmitt Smith chose to start his evening with the waltz. It might not have been the most obvious choice for him, given that he flew out of the gate in the first week of the competition with a funky, rhythmic cha-cha, and that smooth and elegant dancing didn’t come as naturally to him. Emmitt wasn’t entirely elegant this week, of course — he and Cheryl also spent part of their week going to a NASCAR event to stump for votes. Nobody doesn’t understand the power of the NASCAR community, after all.
Emmitt and Cheryl’s waltz was to the ultimate schmaltzy tune, “At This Moment.” The waltz was lovely, though, and it seemed to have been carefully choreographed to showcase Emmitt’s lightness of foot, as it frequently allowed him to open his body and float across the floor, more than some conventional waltzes might. It was undeniably charming, and when the judges gave their comments, Len’s comparison to the dancing figures in a music box was surprisingly apt and affectionate. Carrie-Ann only gave Emmitt and Cheryl a 9, for reasons she didn’t specify, but Len and Bruno gave 10s, so Emmitt was nipping at Mario’s heels as Joey prepared to dance.
Joey and Edyta chose the quickstep for their ballroom round, and Joey explained that he would be wearing a sailor suit in honor of his grandfather, who wished him luck on the phone. There are very few situations in which a grown man who is not a sailor wearing a sailor suit is a good idea, but one of the few that can work is probably a Broadway-style dance to “42nd Street,” which is just what this was.
Joey seemed tentative at first, but as he did with an earlier jive, he stepped out in the middle for a quick tap-dance break, which relaxed him. There were moments when Joey seemed to lose the beat, but he certainly performed with a lot of energy. The judges were enthusiastic, again with only Carrie-Ann giving a 9 and the other judges giving 10s, just as they had for Emmitt.
The Latin round opened with Mario and Karina’s cha-cha, set to “Bad.” Rather than wink at the iconic power of Michael Jackson, as Cheryl did last season when she choreographed a paso doble to “Thriller” sprinkled with hints of the infamous zombie dance, Mario and Karina ripped Jackson off directly, from wardrobe to Mario’s Michael impression that went on quite a bit too long and had little to do with the cha-cha.
The dance was skilled, but also self-indulgent and overly cute. Carrie-Ann said that she originally had deducted a point for all the Michael Jackson nonsense, but had given it back for an unexplained “hotness” element. She, like a ridiculously agreeable Bruno, gave the performance 10s. Len, on the other hand, firmly believed that it was a fun performance, but not much of a cha-cha, and he stuck Mario with a 9.
Emmitt and Cheryl followed with a cha-cha. This one was set to “Dance To The Music,” and while the dance was scattershot at times, it had raw, raunchy energy, not to mention substantially more actual cha-cha than Mario and Karina. Cheryl has a good touch with this kind of hot, pleasantly nasty, nearly over-the-top routine, as she did last season with the freestyle she and Drew performed to “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy).” The judges delivered Emmitt’s first perfect scores for the season. That, of course, put Emmitt in a tie with Mario.
Joey and Edyta closed with a rumba performed to “Eternal Flame.” The rumba is often a dance in which it’s difficult for male celebrities to stand out, notwithstanding Emmitt’s huge scores last week. Joey’s work was pleasant enough, but it didn’t seem special. Nevertheless, Len decided that this was the week Joey proved that he was a real Latin dancer, Bruno and Carrie-Ann followed with similar fawning, and the dance received three 10s.
While Joey’s rumba was adequate and his hips were nicely fluid, when the dance got three perfect tens, it was awfully hard not to conclude that the judges had arranged the tie, leaving the final decision to the audience. Perhaps it’s fitting that on this particular night, it’s all going to come down to the popular vote.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.