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‘Dancing With the Stars’ knows what works

“Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET) is probably the only reality show where you’re supposed to laugh at the casting, and at the way the show keeps topping its own past stunts. You thought George Hamilton was a mugging caricature of himself? Meet Jerry Springer! You thought ESPN’s Kenny Mayne was an awkward broadcaster crammed into a pair of dancing shoes? Here’s Tucker Ca
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET) is probably the only reality show where you’re supposed to laugh at the casting, and at the way the show keeps topping its own past stunts.

You thought George Hamilton was a mugging caricature of himself? Meet Jerry Springer! You thought ESPN’s Kenny Mayne was an awkward broadcaster crammed into a pair of dancing shoes? Here’s Tucker Carlson!

Did you like the part where contestant Lisa Rinna was sweetly supported by spouse Harry Hamlin? How about contestant Harry Hamlin being sweetly supported by spouse Lisa Rinna! Say what you will about this extravagantly goofy production; the producers know how to stick to the plan.

It’s a plan that worked perfectly last season on “Dancing,” which starts its third season on Sept. 12. The highly rated show was last seen closing with a satisfying victory for the enormously likable Drew Lachey over the able but less likable Stacy Keibler. It's no surprise that this season offers apparent doppelgangers for both. Where there once was former boy-band sensation Lachey, there's now Joey “Call Me Joe” Lawrence. Grab a stopwatch, and clock the first time either Lawrence or the show uses his catch phrase: “Whoa.”

Keibler’s apparent heir is Shanna Moakler: model, beauty queen, and Playboy centerfold. She seems like Stacy II, not so much because they have things in common as because the show would never not cast a young, conventionally pretty blonde, and singer Willa Ford — who will be more famous for doing this than for anything else if she lasts a week — doesn’t seem to be the pinup girl, given what ABC calls her reputation as the “bad girl of pop.”

Who else is on the slate? Well, representing those who once seemed to be legitimate actors is Vivica A. Fox, who showed promise in “Kill Bill” and “Soul Food,” but who now apparently is embracing her opportunity to learn the cha-cha in public. Mario Lopez is the first of what appears to be a series of appearances by the entire cast of “Saved By The Bell,” all of whom proved their mettle during the show’s randomly inserted dance/cheerleading numbers, and all of whom, frankly, have the time.

Can 'Dancing' tango over competition?

Reliance on formula isn’t an airtight strategy, of course. “Dancing” has emerged from its origins as a campy 2005 summer romp to the point where it is now expected to compete with stiff, regular-season competition, as it did in the spring. Now on Tuesday nights, the primary competition show each week will face CBS’s popular “NCIS,” Fox’s Emmy-nominated cult favorite “House,” NBC’s well-reviewed new drama “Friday Night Lights,” and the CW’s limping but much-loved “Gilmore Girls.”

The field is crowded in that time period, to say the least — not as crowded as it will be in the spring, when “Dancing” is not scheduled, and will be spared a showdown with a little Simon Cowell show you might have heard of — but crowded nevertheless.

“Dancing” generally needs a good mix of three kinds of contestants. First, there are the train wrecks. Everyone knows by now about Master P in season two, and how the judges mocked him and lamented his presence and his inappropriate shoes until his overdue booting finally came. Most also remember George Hamilton, who stood around and mugged, and who still got remarkably high scores, apparently for being himself better than anyone else ever could hope to be.

This season, with Jerry Springer already publicly calling himself an overmatched, underqualified disaster, promises to keep us elbow-deep in klutzes. Tucker Carlson also does not seem to have been born with bells on his toes, so it may be an 0-for-2 showing for the talk-show hosts.

But it’s not just about the bad dancing. There are always some celebrities who find themselves surprised at how easily and happily they take to dancing. Lachey was one of these; so was newscaster Giselle Fernandez, who was sent home before her time, but not before winning a lot of fans with her obvious delight in doing something so different from her usual routine. Given Hamlin's delight at Rinna’s success and his obvious personal stake in participating, he seems like a good bet in that category.

Of course, somewhere between the bad dancers and the surprisingly good dancers, there are those who keep plugging away in spite of what appear to be terrible odds. These are the plucky underdogs. Jerry Rice fit into this category last season, and ultimate winner Kelly Monaco represented it in the first. Plucky underdogs are the hardest to pick out ahead of time, because the role requires a unique mix of determination, genial appeal, and an almost complete lack of innate ability. Mario Lopez and Joey Lawrence seem too steeped in athletics and performing to be all that bad, and Sara Evans seems like an unlikely choice, because well-known country musicians are usually not rhythmically ignorant enough to really fit the mold. My pick for plucky underdog is either Shanna Moakler or Willa Ford. Sure, Ford is a musician, apparently, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see either of them struggle.

"Dancing With the Stars" is a show on a roll. It seems to have hit the jackpot again with genius moves like casting an unlikable blowhard like Carlson in a role almost guaranteed to make him uncomfortable, as well as bringing back teen idols like Lopez and Lawrence. Even in a tough time slot, this show, which knows enough not to mess with what works, will probably stomp its way through the fall, fancy shoes or not.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.