The new season of "Dancing With The Stars" kicked off on Monday night, and as host Tom Bergeron was quick to note, it's the most overstuffed season ever, with sixteen couples in the mix. For that reason, only the men danced in the premiere episode, meaning that eight dances were spread over two hours, so not even the giant cast could save viewers from a slow-paced opener.
First out of the gate was pop singer Aaron Carter, paired with the always dramatic Karina Smirnoff. Doing the cha-cha-cha, Carter was very sharp for a first-timer, and it's obvious that he's spent lots of time dancing. Still, there's something that looks a little overwound about his dancing right now. It's as if he's making all the right faces (and dancing very well for this stage) but can't quite harness his energy. The judges said as much, with all three focusing on his "potential" and the need for him to clean up the feet.
Much more cleanup will be required for mixed martial artist Chuck Liddell, whose partner is Anna Trebunskaya. Her first instruction was that Chuck needs to smile during the foxtrot more than he smiles when he's kicking a guy in the face. Liddell is awkward and looks pained much of the time, but something about him is oddly winning, and he's clearly trying hard. He also got a very positive audience response, despite not exactly being filled with natural charisma. Liddell will never be a great dancer, but his kind of fish-out-of-water sometimes sticks around longer than you'd expect.
Mark Dacascos of "Iron Chef: America," who's both an actor and a martial artist, landed the award for Most On-The-Nose Musical Selection for doing the cha-cha-cha to "Kung Fu Fighting." Predictably, partner Lacey Schwimmer sprinkled the dance with martial arts moves, and just as predictably, judge Len Goodman would have preferred regular dancing. Still, Dacascos was graceful and athletic, and he understands rhythm and movement.
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‘Dancing With the Stars’ 2009
One of the season's more inexplicable contestants, Ashley Hamilton, was up next. He led with explanations to his partner Edyta Sliwinska about his injury history and its effects on his ability to move. Whether that's the reason or not, Hamilton was embarrassingly stiff in the foxtrot, which lacked even a single molecule of the goofball charm that his father George effortlessly showed when dancing with Edyta a few seasons back. The judges called Ashley out on his total lack of personality, and he immediately began to look like his tenure on the show could be very, very short.
Of course, if anyone was expected to do well among the men, it was probably Donny Osmond, who is both a stage performer and a pretty familiar guy, both of which are early assets in a big way. Every bit of Osmond's theatricality was on display during a foxtrot to "All That Jazz," but the dance was a bit short on actual steps, as the judges all noted. Nothing bad will happen to Donny Osmond until a lot of lesser-known cannon fodder is eliminated, but for the moment, he's more a familiar and eager presence than a particularly good dancer.
Many in the audience undoubtedly were unfamiliar with snowboarder Louie Vito, who turned out to be a very petite guy with a broad, toothy smile. His partner, Chelsie Hightower, put together a foxtrot that didn't demand much of him technically, and he performed adequately, if a bit stiffly. Vito could easily become this season's Ty Murray, an underperforming lovable athlete with a great deal of charm.
The NFL is represented this season by Michael Irvin, who declared his entire goal was to do better than Jerry Rice. (He may not recall that Jerry Rice finished second.) So far, Michael Irvin is no Jerry Rice, but he did begin to loosen up while learning the cha-cha-cha.
The most talked-about contestant was predictably saved for last: Tom DeLay, paired with the reliable Cheryl Burke. DeLay initially looked like he was going to be utterly hopeless, but eventually, his cha-cha-cha looked merely really bad, and not disastrous. DeLay is cursed with all the grace of a lifelong politician, and forcing him to wiggle and lip sync to "Wild Thing" did him no favors. But anyone who has watched "Dancing" for any amount of time has seen worse. (Bruno Tonioli nevertheless called him "crazier than Sarah Palin.")
The last two elements of the night were "relay dances," in which four pairs of couples at a time competed, with the judges naming first through fourth place winners and awarding points according to placement. In the salsa relay, it was Donny Osmond, Louie Vito, Ashley Hamilton, and Chuck Liddell and their partners, and they performed about as they had in their solos. Hamilton was a hopeless stiff, Liddell was clunky but appealing, Vito was a solid but limited performer, and Osmond sold the routine like his life depended on it. And that was the order the judges assigned, from lowest to highest, giving Donny Osmond a boost he didn't need to stay in the competition.
The Viennese waltz relay sent Tom DeLay, Mark Dacascos, Aaron Carter, and Michael Irvin out with their partners. Again, the solo performances were predictably echoed: Carter is a very solid dancer, Dacascos is somewhat less so, DeLay sticks to very basic moves and doesn't embarrass himself too much, and Irvin has more charm than ability. Ultimately, Carter came in first, followed by Dacascos, Irvin, and DeLay.
The takeaway from the first night isn't complicated: Ashley Hamilton is in big trouble. He has no discernible fan base, very little name recognition, low scores from the judges, and nothing to give him a hook. Had he been a glorious train wreck, he might have picked up irony votes from people who at least thought he was entertaining. But being a bore is death for a guy like Hamilton, who would have to give people a reason to vote for him. The women will dance tomorrow night, but for now, Tom DeLay should be happy it's over and Ashley Hamilton should be enjoying it while it lasts.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.