“Dancing With the Stars” doesn’t usually roll out the drama the minute the contestants come down the stairs, but when Melissa Rycroft didn’t appear, something was clearly amiss.
Host Tom Bergeron explained that Melissa suffered an injury this week and could not compete, stating that he’d be explaining later how they intended to handle her absence in terms of the competition. Not an auspicious beginning.
Gilles Marini was sporting a bum shoulder last week and came in third, despite getting three 9s. This week, rehearsals for the Lindy hop went roughly enough that he required a cortisone shot and scared partner Cheryl Burke into fearing that he’d drop her during one of the many lifts. But in the end, the Lindy hop — performed with Gilles in a rather outrageous pompadour — was lively and charming, though he doesn’t have quite the execution in fast dances that he has in the area of romantic smoldering. Again, he managed straight 9s, putting him in a strong position but leaving room for someone else to sneak in.
Lil’ Kim was assured last week that she should bring the raunch back to her dancing, and the paso doble gave her a good opportunity. Determined to bring her personality to the forefront, Lil’ Kim completed the dance with considerable speed and quickness, finishing with an impressive set of tricks that got the crowd hollering. Judge Bruno Tonioli leapt from his seat immediately, and the fact that his fist was going to fly into the air with a shriek of “TEN!” was abundantly clear. With 9s from the other two judges, she wound up with a total of 28, sneaking ahead of Gilles.
Chuck Wicks and Julianne Hough finally had the “breakthrough” they’d been seeking last week with the samba, so they were looking for a similar outcome with the cha cha cha. After promising in the pre-performance clips that his hips were “on fire,” Chuck showed up in his second set of shiny pajamas in a row (these were blue; last week’s were red). Chuck is certainly a vastly more comfortable dancer than he was early in the competition, and aside from the continuing tendency to scrunch his face into unappealing shapes while trying to convey “intensity,” he’s progressing well. The judges complimented him generously, Julianne continued to bubble over with happiness, and Chuck pulled in two 9s and an 8, putting him only a point behind Gilles.
Shawn Johnson and Mark Ballas have also been making strong showings in recent weeks. This week’s samba called for lots of personality, Mark told her, so to help Shawn’s style, Mark brought in his ballroom champion mother. Their samba was fun, if a little subdued. The judges’ reactions were slightly lukewarm, with Len Goodman claiming the dreaded lack of hip action. Shawn wound up with a surprising 10 from Carrie Ann, an 8 from grumpy Len and a 9 from Bruno.
Finally, the time came to explain what was going on with Melissa’s rib injury. We saw her rehearsals with Tony Dovolani for the jive, including the moment she aggravated a rib injury that the doctor told her is probably a hairline fracture. The doctor cleared her to keep going, but she had to bow out during the day on Monday, so the judges were asked to base scores — and viewers their votes — on the last taped rehearsal from the morning. Unfortunately, Melissa clearly wasn’t rehearsing at performance level, and she even paused a couple of times.
The judges openly acknowledged that Melissa wasn’t trying to complete a real performance and judging it was a bit of a farce, but they had to complete the exercise, so Melissa and Tony finished with straight 7s, which were probably generous. Tony took the scores graciously and agreed that they were fair — and then he begged the audience for the votes they would need to stay on the show.
Ty Murray had a successful waltz last week that put him back in the game; this week, he faced the salsa, a Latin dance of the type he hasn’t consistently done well. With a little help from pro Dmitry Chaplin (formerly Holly Madison’s partner), Ty learned to loosen up his hips and shoulders, and he even hit the spray-tan machine. While he still isn’t a natural dancer, he certainly showed more hips and shoulders than anyone would ever have expected him to possess. Carrie Ann was enthusiastic and Bruno gave him lots of praise, but Len told Ty that he is overmatched by those who remain. The scores were a 9, a 7 and an 8. As happened with Steve-O, Len seems to be pushing Ty out the door with the lowest score he can justify.
The show then divided the pairs into two groups of three pairs: Team Mambo and Team Tango. Each group would perform together and receive a single score that would count just as much as their individual dance toward their judges’ score.
Team Mambo, featuring Melissa, Shawn and Chuck and their partners, had pro Lacey Schwimmer filling in for Melissa so the routine would work, but the scoring wasn’t to include Lacey’s work. Even if she didn’t “count,” it was fun to watch Lacey kick off the mambo to “Single Ladies,” and both Shawn and Chuck looked good. A brief (and probably obligatory) homage to the well-known video at the end of the routine worked well without being too disorienting, though Carrie Ann — frequently snippy buzzkill that she is — complained that she found all the fun kind of distracting. The team earned 8s from Carrie Ann and Len and a 9 from Bruno.
Team Tango featured Gilles, Kim and Ty. Their rehearsals looked rocky, with Kim and Derek having some apparent friction for the first time that we’ve seen. Both Kim and Gilles, however, have excelled in the tango before, and they both performed well. While Chuck doesn’t share their natural talent, he held his own. They looked strong in their work at the end, and the judges were pleased. Len even reserved his most favorable comments for Ty, of all people. They scored two 9s and a 10, giving a marked boost of three points to all three of these dancers over the three on Team Mambo. Very bad news for Melissa, who will get the same score as her team, despite not being present.
With Melissa carrying a very formidable five-point deficit — that’s how far she is behind Chuck, the closest person to her when the single and group dances are added — we will see how powerful her fans are. It will take quite a showing for them to overcome the gap when only five points separate Chuck from first-place Lil’ Kim, but don’t put it past them. If she’s saved, then all bets are off, and Chuck and Ty — and maybe even Shawn Johnson, who’s only a point ahead of those two — will have to hope they have plenty of fans as well.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com