Eight weeks and thousands of steps on, “Dancing With the Stars” comes to a season 11 finale on Nov. 22 and 23, starring the three faces of celebrity: the once-known (Jennifer Grey), the semi-known (Kyle Massey) and the “why?” known (Bristol Palin).
But it’s Palin, an object of controversy since she managed to not get eliminated in the first few weeks despite her low judges’ scores, who’s inflaming audience passions and keeping the “DWTS” ratings sky high. There’s been so many angry fans raising their voices in chorus both pro- and anti-Bristol — who began as an untried toe-tapper and has grown into a solid hoofer — that even the show’s executive producer, Conrad Green, isn’t sure how he feels.
“I’m conflicted,” he said. “I love that there’s so much passion roused about this show. Unfortunately, with the nature of the series, we book people and after that we’re surfing the wave. We have no idea how this is going to pan out.”
He is pleased with Palin’s progress, calling her a “pretty good dancer now,” but does feel some regret over the loss of Brandy, who was ousted on Nov. 16. “We were all rooting for her, and it’s a shame not to have her in the finals,” he said. “I don’t like losing Brandy.”
Which just goes to prove that even though you may run the show, you can’t run the results. And the unexpected way in which this season has unfolded is nearly the opposite of last season, which ended in May.
Remember the brouhaha over Nicole Scherzinger, who was considered a “ringer” for being a trained and accomplished dancer even prior to joining “Dancing”? This year, on came Palin, awkward and full of mistakes, with a lightning rod of a mother cheering from the stands.
“You kind of can’t win,” said Green. “But the nature of this show means you’re always going to irritate or disappoint some section of your audience.”
'Coming out of her shell'
Many are far from disappointed with Palin, whose evolution mirrors former “DWTS” contestant Kelly Osbourne’s. In season nine, the daughter of Black Sabbath rocker Ozzy and wife Sharon appeared on the show with little discernable talent and danced off with a graceful third-place finish and the hearts of the audience, thanks to the way she blossomed before viewers’ eyes. Palin is proving it can be done again — amidst an even greater hailstorm of dissent.
“Showing improvement is almost more important than being a brilliant dancer, because it gives the audience a sense of being involved in your progress,” said Green. “If you come out of the block really good and you’re getting great marks from the judges, there’s not many places you can go, or many ways for the audience to go in terms of feeling they’re watching you develop.
“Bristol has come from being a receptionist in a dermatologist’s office in Alaska to being on a show watched by 23 million people,” he continued. “You’re watching her come out of her shell, and it’s a rather lovely story to watch.”
Story over talent
Even die-hard skeptics, such as “DC Cupcakes” executive producer Terence Noonan, admits he’s been taken in. “I want her to be horrible!” he said. “But she’s actually gotten good.”
In a way, said New York Reality TV School founder Robert Galinsky, such a transparent transformation pulls the curtain back to show the inner workings of reality TV.
“We now get to see that story arc does trump talent,” he said. “Talent is secondary to peoples’ stories and the journey that Bristol — the everyman, everywoman — is taking here,” he said.
Still, that’s why so many reality show fans are incensed, he added. “They understand what’s going on, but true reality fans don’t want to accept that it’s a popularity contest and (that it) doesn’t come down to the talent of a dancer. It comes down to what visceral reaction this contestant can give us.”
And, added Noonan, it’s about something else as well: “Keeping the numbers up,” he said. “It’s a ratings game — that’s the business.”
Numbers are also key in the voting process. “We balance the share contestants get from judges’ points on the night with the share they get from audience votes on the night,” explained Green. “When you get to later stages of the competition, when there’s a relatively small gap in points between all the competitors, the share they get is pretty similar.”
Though the show won’t discuss how many people vote, Green said that there was only a 3.5 percent difference in the tally between Grey and Palin. There was just 1.5 percent of a difference between Brandy and Palin.
“We don’t need a huge difference in audience votes to make one person safe in that context,” he said.
So perhaps in the end, viewers who remain increasingly irritated by the results of the show should start pretending that they’ve just been here to witness a great story punctuated by a little dance, rather than the other way around. It might make what’s likely to happen in the finals easier to digest.
“Win, lose or draw, Bristol has already won,” said Galinsky. “She showed connection with an audience is more important than the talent you’re competing with on a show. She’ll have her pick of opportunities after it’s all over — she’s now an expert on reality TV, so the possibilities are going to be endless for her.”
Noonan agreed: “Someone is going to hire her. I’m sure ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or ‘Access Hollywood’ or ‘Extra’ are already making deals with her. Maybe she’ll have her own reality show soon. The thing is, if you can get eyeballs to a TV, they’re going to hire you. You can watch if you like her, watch if you don’t like her, but you’re still watching. That’s what it’s all about.”
Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.