The judges of ABC’s hit show “Dancing With the Stars” can’t catch a break. If they don’t give a fan favorite a perfect score, the audience boos them. Even if they declare one celebrity the best hoofer in the competition, the voters can still override them.
Compared to judges in regular, non-celebrity ballroom showdowns, these officials are practically powerless, especially when it comes to selecting the winners of the disco-ball trophy, which happens Tuesday night for this fifth season of the dance competition.
Then why is it Len Goodman, Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli get the blame whenever controversies arise, as has happened many times this season? They’re in the business of criticism, but fans, celebs and at least one of the pros don’t want to hear it. Maybe the popular opinion has it that judges shouldn’t have unpopular opinions. Or maybe viewers, and even some soft-shoes, don’t realize how little those score paddles count in the end.
Everybody’s a critic The first big kerfuffle of the season was Liftgate. It all started innocently enough: Jane Seymour and Tony Dovolani completed a gorgeous Viennese waltz and waited to hear the praise from the panel. That’s when Carrie Ann nitpicked a possible inch-high, rule-violating lift. In Jane and Tony’s defense, far more egregious lifts were ignored, but still, a rule’s a rule.
Normally that would have been the end of it, but Jane complained in her blog and Tony took it a step further by going to the tabloids to defend the dance. He told People, “(Carrie Ann’s) the inappropriate judge to pick on the lifts.” Tony added that the former Fly Girl “does not have a ballroom background.”
With hardly any time for that little incident to die down, Marie Osmond put the judges in her sights. Apparently she felt that they were singling her and Jane out by, well, critiquing their lackluster performances. “I think they're trying to get the older chicks off the show, and I say shame on them,” Marie told OK! Magazine.
Even Jane’s usually reserved spouse, James Keach, got right into the fray when he publicly ranted that at least one of his wife’s dances deserved “a much better score than it got.”
Tens for everyone
Oddly enough, the one thing Len and company are guilty of, they rarely get criticized for. Complaints pour in when they’re harsh, but no one makes a peep when they pass out overly generous scores. Marie and Mr. Jane may wax annoying about unfair totals, but they ought to be thankful for some of the out-of-nowhere high scores that everyone enjoyed this season.
While the latest batch of stars are almost always referred to as “the most talented yet,” they’re not without flubs. But when it’s time to tell it like it is where numbers are concerned, it just doesn’t happen.
For instance, in the semifinal round last week, Bruno reviewed Marie and Jonathan’s mambo and pointed out that she lost her steps “four or five times.” Ouch! Or not. See, rather than knocking off multiple points for the infractions, he still gave her a 9. That means Helio Castroneves’ purportedly perfect fox-trot was only one point better than all those missteps.
The trend didn’t start last week, though. No, handing out high scores like candy has gone on all season. Even the prematurely eliminated golden girl, Sabrina Bryan, received more than her share of numerical gifts from the judges. Just four weeks into the competition, she enjoyed a perfect score for stomping and pushing her way through the paso doble.
Now in the final stretch, it seems like anything below a 10 is an insult, requiring boos from the crowd and a round of “Well, I thought we did great” from the dancers. Somewhere, Cameron Mathison is still smarting about his seven-worthy Viennese waltz earning only nines.
What’s in a score? The fact of the matter is it hardly matters how many points the judges award the stars and their partners. Sure, their ballroom credibility’s on the line, but as far as the results go, unless they start giving out zeros, Len, Bruno and Carrie Ann have little say.
Host Tom Bergeron always reminds the crowd in the home seats that their votes will be tallied with the judges’ scores to determine who remains in the competition and who gets eliminated. But what he doesn’t explain is the complicated equation used to reach that conclusion.
After any given performance night, the total scores given to all couples are combined. Then each score is divided from that sum to figure out the percentage of the overall scores each couple received. That’s then added to the voting percentages. Follow?
While statistically that means the votes and scores hold equal weight, in real-world terms, not so much. The voting public isn’t required to cast a little something for everyone, as the officials do. So fans of Marie can, and apparently do, give all of their allotted votes to her.
That’s why Abercrombie and Fitch model Albert Reed (aka “Who?” to the TV-viewing masses) got the boot in Week 2, despite dancing circles around Wayne Newton. It also explains how the dreadful Master P hung on for four weeks in the second season without even trying to dance. Much like “American Idol” before it, “Dancing With the Stars” is ultimately a popularity contest.
That means no one can blame the judges if their favorite fails to nab the disco ball on Tuesday night. Blame some other celeb’s massive fan base. Maybe go in for a vote-count conspiracy. Speculate that the mythical auto-dialers that kept ballroom billionaire Mark Cuban in the game for five weeks are back. But as for the judges, their practically powerless paddles won’t be responsible for it.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.