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John O’Hurley tries to waltz his way to a win

Will dance-off make ‘Dancing with the Stars’ more than a summer romance for fans?
/ Source: contributor

From the battle between the Sharks and the Jets in “West Side Story” to the Britney Spears-Justin Timberlake impromptu showdown at an L.A. club, there are some disputes that can't be settled by anything less than a catchy beat, happy feet and some way of judging the winner. Friends, introducing the great American dance-off.

“Dancing with the Stars” originally ended on July 6 with Kelly Monaco and professional dance partner Alec Mazo defeating John O'Hurley and partner Charlotte Jorgensen in a final episode that was so controversial, so outrageous (at least to “Seinfeld” fans who nostalgically remembered O'Hurley as J. Peterman) that the network felt the audience needed to decide the outcome by themselves.

Of course, even if just the viewers had voted in July, the original results wouldn't have been any different, so perhaps it was something else. Perhaps the network wanted to squeeze a couple of more nights out of a highly rated program while simultaneously promoting its new shows. Say it isn't so! In any case, it's not like either celebrity finalist didn't have the time to spare anyway.

More than a summer romance?Sound campy? It is, to some extent. In a television landscape dominated by Hurricane Katrina news and fall TV season hype, a show like this one risks feeling out of place. Depending on what the overnight ratings say, this dance-off could be remembered as the quintessential summer romance that couldn't survive the change of season.

But if it doesn't, it will be because the competition actually seemed to mean something, both to the contestants and the viewing audience. While both celebrity contestants were performing for charity, with the winner's choice getting an unspecified amount of cash from ABC, this was far from a telethon. O'Hurley in particular barely mentioned his at all … he just wanted to win.

Conspiracy theorists and Monaco fans couldn't have been happy with the coverage on Tuesday. O'Hurley, who was seen by many as the favorite during the show's original run, was now being painted as the scrappy underdog looking to right a perceived injustice. The producers did everything but show him punching sides of beef in a freezing warehouse, a la Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky.”

Whether he was seriously annoyed at the original results or simply in character, O'Hurley was a man on a mission. "Nobody wants to win as much as I do," he said in the show's first segment.

"There's not a day in my life that I think twice about it — I think we should have won." And after the second, he repeated "I don't know why this is so important to me this time, but it is. It really is."

Kelly Monaco as Apollo CreedOf course, Monaco can't complain too much about that angle, since the show's producers did the same underdog routine for her during the show's original run. Back then, she was the soap star who seemed more likely to fall down or inadvertently run afoul of the FCC with costume mishaps than actually win.

This time around, Monaco entered as the champ with nothing much to gain and a mythical dance title on the line. She seemed annoyed that there was any controversy at all, playing the grade-school "we won this fair and square" card.  Moreover, the initial clips made her look like she wasn't taking this as seriously, claiming in her initial segment that "since the finale, I have not danced at all." There was no indication of when that interview took place — it may have been two weeks after the original finale — but it served as a sharp contrast to O'Hurley's determination.

That was exacerbated by an exchange Monaco had with Mazo. Practicing her cha-cha-cha, she complained, "I think you're making this much more difficult than it's supposed to be."

"Do you think that John is saying that to Charlotte?" Mazo responded.

In fact, he was not — as the audience later learned from Jorgensen, it was "less joking and much more down to business" for the reigning runners-up.

This played perfectly into ABC's theme for the night — the high-stakes race to be the First Dancing with the Stars Champions (revised). It would have been tough to build an audience by asking them to watch random B-list celebrities do the rhumba, but the producers weren't born yesterday. Make it a competition, create some story lines, add some judges to offer cutting comments on occasion, and the viewers will come.

What a surprise: A tieAs far as the actual dancing went, Monaco and Mazo were the winners on the judges' scorecards in the first round of dances, scoring a 25 (out of 30 possible points) to O'Hurley and Jorgensen's 22 in the Latin dance portion of the competition.

Of course, all this did was make the O'Hurley-Jorgensen tandem even more lovable underdogs, and maybe the sentiment clouded the judges' vision a bit. They got a perfect score and effusive praise from all three judges for their round two waltz, and easily won on the scorecards.

That left just the freestyle competition. The judges, predictably, scored that round a tie, each judge giving each couple the same score (they're so close! Every vote counts!). Even the costumes made it tough to pick a winner in there — the looks of a Kelly Monaco in a revealing outfit vs. the courage of O'Hurley to come out wearing spandex.

The polls closed 15 minutes after the show ended, but the results won't be announced until Thursday. That's when the big question may be answered: if O'Hurley and Jorgensen win, when will the tie-breaking Dance-Off take place?

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.