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Emmitt Smith has the ‘Dancing’ spirit

He surprises with fleet feet, and Tucker Carlson is the new Master P

There are a lot of confused people when it comes to “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Tuesdays/Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET). They wonder why anyone would watch a bunch of mid-level “famous” figures waltzing with a blur of professionals you’re unlikely to have heard of unless you travel in the ballroom-acquainted circles where “American Smooth” refers to something other than Velveeta. Tuesday’s third-season premiere offered an answer in two words: Emmitt Smith.

Both of the first two seasons featured a large and apparently unlikely athlete of the “neck like a tree trunk” variety. In the first, it was Evander Holyfield. In the second, it was Jerry Rice. Evander was terrible, and Jerry went all the way to the finale, but neither of them was blessed with natural ability, though Jerry improved enormously after a lot of hard work. So what became of this season’s giant-necked athlete, Emmitt Smith? He can dance, and you’d never have guessed unless you saw him do it. That’s why people watch the show — because you never know until you see it for yourself.

Not so hidden talentsOf course, sometimes, you have a hint. To start with the celebrities who acquitted themselves the best, Mario Lopez did enough athletic and gymnastic-looking things on “Saved By The Bell” that he seemed like a likely contender. Indeed, he was probably the best technical dancer in the group. He got the highest scores by a good margin, and it doesn’t hurt that he appears to have gotten about 50 percent better-looking in the last 10 years. Shaking off the eternal mullet of his youth hasn’t hurt, but those dimples have aged delightfully.

Also making a strong showing was Joey Lawrence, who started off with an unconvincing disavowal of his dance background, pointing out that although he did tap dance for Johnny Carson when he was five, he hasn’t danced in public since childhood. Pay no attention to that talent behind the curtain! Obviously, part of the reason one tap dances for Carson at an early age is a natural gift for movement, which Lawrence hasn’t lost. He knows how to move his hips, and particularly with Latin dances like the cha-cha that the men performed in the opener, that goes a long way. His big, bald figure will be a surprise to anyone who hasn’t laid eyes on him since “Blossom” (which is basically… everyone), but he did well.

It’s hard to pick a female frontrunner, because the women did the foxtrot instead of the cha-cha. To the untrained eye, no dance gives as little information about how good a dancer is as the foxtrot, which can look a lot like a leisurely stroll with occasional pretty bending. It relies heavily on things like elegance and body line, which aren’t easy for armchair critics to judge, making it probably a poor choice for the introductory dance. Actress Vivica A. Fox, declaring her intention to represent women over 40, but not looking a day over 30, scored well with the judges, as did pop singer Willa Ford. But none of the women looked as imposing out of the gate as Lopez and Lawrence.

Enjoying the dance helpsSmith is easily the best of the rest of the men. He has enormous natural charm, which is critical in this competition, and he’s paired with Cheryl Burke, who was much loved last season when she and Drew Lachey ultimately won the whole thing. Smith isn’t a trained dancer, and that shows, but he’s a self-assured athlete who likes and gets dancing. He performed with confidence in spite of what seems to be an almost complete lack of experience, and he looked like he was having a great time. Given the strong showing last season from Jerry Rice, who was a much weaker dancer, expect Smith to draw many of the same fans and hang around for a long, long time.

As much as Emmitt Smith looked like he enjoyed dancing, that’s how much Harry Hamlin looked like he did not enjoy it. His wife, Lisa Rinna, was embraced by fans last season for her eager, game attitude, and as one of the judges noted, it would have been great to see the same from Hamlin. Unfortunately, he was the opposite. While he appeared to be sincere, he was uncomfortable. He might have been able to hide an early case of nerves in a dance like the waltz or (interestingly) the foxtrot, but the fast pace of the cha-cha exposed him as a stiff. Expect Hamlin to go home quickly, as he’s not interesting enough to attract train-wreck votes, but he’s not good enough to want to watch again. Poor Ashly DelGrosso, saddled with Master P last time, is stuck with Hamlin this time, and must be wondering right about now whom she offended to land this assignment.

Monique Coleman (“High School Musical”) and beauty queen Shanna Moakler fall into a sort of fair-to-middling area in which neither distinguished herself, but neither made any major mistakes, either. While Coleman got the bad news that her foxtrot “had about as much romance as an autopsy,” and Moakler received a silly “the beauty queen turned into an ice queen” insult, they both did fine, and stand a perfectly good chance of redeeming themselves when the dances get more intricate and it’s easier to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Bringing up the rearA level below those two was country singer Sara Evans, who looked uncomfortable with partner Tony Dovolani. Dovolani was matched with natural talent Stacy Keibler last time around, and for those who found him to be a bit of an unctuous boob, there’s some satisfaction in seeing him struggle with a plain old ordinary person like Evans. Dovolani can try to transform her into a “lioness,” as he put it, but so far, judge Bruno compared her instead to Barbara Bush. They did an unromantic and uninspiring foxtrot to Barry Manilow’s unromantic and uninspiring “Mandy,” continuing the show’s tradition of challenging the dancers with totally inappropriate and often very bad music.

Filling the role of the aging goofball, occupied last year by George Hamilton, was Jerry Springer, who made a point of publicly promising to be terrible before the premiere. Surprisingly, Springer wasn’t entirely incompetent. He moved his feet in a pattern related to the sounds being produced by the band, and while he had a few choreography lapses, he certainly put more oomph into it than, say, Harry Hamlin.

Bringing up the rear was Tucker Carlson, who was genuinely dreadful. How bad was he? He remained seated during the first 25 percent or so of the performance while his partner danced around. Could not be trusted, apparently, to competently stand still without lowering the score. Once he stood up, as one judge pointed out, it got worse. His feet barely moved, he had little sense of where the beat was, and there was the uncomfortable sense throughout that he found the entire thing hilariously below his notice. If any of this is sounding familiar, it should. You may have thought you’d go a lifetime without hearing it, but here it is: Tucker Carlson is the new Master P.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.