IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

No clear favorite on ‘Dancing With the Stars’

Ian Ziering, Joey Fatone and Laila Ali all start off on the right foot, while Leeza Gibbons and Shandi Finnessey seem unlikely to rally the fans. By Linda Holmes

On any premiere night of “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Mondays, 8 p.m. ET), there are celebrities you hope are bad and celebrities you hope are good. Last year, it was easy to hope Tucker Carlson would trip on his shoelaces and take a header into the orchestra pit. By the same token, this year, it was easy to cross your fingers and chant, “Ziering, Ziering, Ziering.”

And indeed, Ian Ziering opened the show with considerable charm, noting that he was “probably” best known as Steve Sanders on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Yeah. “Probably.” Aside from an unflattering semi-beard that he should promptly wipe off, Ian sparkled during his cha-cha — he was fast in the hips and comfortable with . While it seems like Cheryl couldn’t possibly win again, between Ian’s camp appeal and his actual ability, he and Cheryl have to be viewed as imposing competitors.

Also in good form was former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, paired with the scrumptious Alec Mazo, the first-season champion (with Kelly Monaco), who’s returned to delight shallow women in the crowd, if nothing else. Paulina sheepishly described that dancing with her as the equivalent of “dancing with Bullwinkle,” but when she got out on the floor, she was graceful. Her height (she’s 5-foot-11 before the heels, making her taller than Alec with them) does, however, make her partnership a challenge. The general “mismatch” that Carrie Ann Inaba complained about was probably just about the fact that Paulina was tall, so her success may depend on how Alec can choreograph their numbers to minimize its importance.

Achy-Breaky indeedBilly Ray Cyrus is known to Disney Channel viewers as a part of “Hannah Montana,” but if you are of a certain vintage, all you know is “Achy Breaky Heart.” Billy Ray didn’t want to step too far outside his country comfort zone, so he stuck with what Len Goodman referred to as a “hoedown,” which involved very, very little dancing by Billy Ray, though there was substantially more by his partner.

That partner, the notorious Karina Smirnoff of “and Mario Lopez” fame, moved around, but no one did anything that looked like a cha-cha. At the end of the dance, Billy Ray tried to yank off Karina’s mullet wig, and it didn’t go well at all, forcing him to awkwardly grab at the wig until he pried it from her scalp in an uncomfortable conclusion. The judges gave him what appeared to be a free pass for the dance, scoring it low but conceding that it wasn’t even dancing, so there was nothing to critique. Ouch.

Leeza Gibbons seems like a nice lady, probably too nice to be paired with the arrogant Tony Dovolani. While Leeza’s attitude was admirable and her dedication was obvious, she lacked a certain natural grace and comfort with dancing in public. Her smile was nervous and pasted-on, which rendered her unfortunately clownlike and stiff. Her scores reflected the judges’ respect for her work and their conviction that she needed to relax and stop acting, as Bruno Tonioli said, like she was at the “edge of the Grand Canyon.”

Fantone finds the beat
Joey Fatone received the most puzzling judge reaction of the evening. He presented his disco cha-cha with energy, but the judges’ conviction that he was clearly the best, or that he had kicked off the competition, seemed out of sync (get it?) with his elementary choreography, which was propped up by the gimmicky disco business. His partner, Kym Johnson, is certainly better off with Joey than she was with Jerry Springer, but Joey seems like a so-called “favorite” without much to back him up, and he’ll be vulnerable to dropping like a rock if he stops to breathe.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

The strongest of the women was Laila Ali, whose foxtrot looked confident, graceful and sexy. Despite the obligatory boxing jokes suggesting that she was going to punch her partner, Laila didn’t come across as a fish-out-of-water athlete, but as a composed, lovely woman. It was interesting to note that while many celebrities allow their partners to do the heavy lifting until they feel confident (I’m talking to you, Billy Ray Cyrus), Laila began her foxtrot by spinning across the floor all by herself, a nicely daring debut. She received high scores from the judges, although oddly not quite as good as those of Joey Fatone.

You’ve got to feel for John Ratzenberger, who joined the cast only after Vincent Pastore found the rehearsals too taxing. Most of the celebrities had four weeks of rehearsal (down from the usual six); he had maybe two. Combined with his age and goofiness, his lack of preparation time set Ratzenberger up to be the Jerry Springer, the Evander Holyfield and the Tucker Carlson of the bunch, all rolled into one clumsy package.

Judged against the other funny older men of past seasons, John did a decent job. He moved his feet and actually did the dance, which is more than past immobile “dancers” like George Hamilton can say. Ironically, Ratzenberger may go almost immediately, because he isn’t quite bad enough to be funny-bad.

The show has paired former Miss USA Shandi Finnessey with a young dancer named Brian Fortuna, who views her as his hot (or perhaps hotcha!) ticket to success. Their foxtrot, incongruously performed to “The Power Of Love” by Huey Lewis, showed that Shandi is perfectly capable of looking pretty, moving in the approximate manner dictated by the music, and still being boring. Carrie Ann called her “pigeon-toed,” almost everyone else called her dull, and her performance wound up barely registering at all. If she does this again next week, her absolute lack of name recognition will make it easy to throw her out.

Fear of heights?Clyde Drexler is tall. That’s what anyone who saw him dance will remember about him, but what’s troubling isn’t that he’s tall. It’s that he dances like he’s tall, and like it makes him nervous, which the judges pointed out. Carrie Ann told him not to be afraid to dance “bigger,” which is ironic but very good advice to give a guy who’s already more than a foot taller than his partner. The judges see promise in Clyde, who proudly aligned himself with the Emmitt Smith/Jerry Rice/Evander Holyfield axis of the past, but so far, he dances like he’s at a club.

Okay, confess: you saw the commercials, and you read all this way just to find out whether Heather Mills finished her dance without her leg flying off as she said she feared. The answer? She did. It would be lovely to say that the disability was invisible, but that’s not quite the case.

At times, Heather looked different on the floor than the other women, simply because her movements are different and her balance works differently. In rehearsal, the issue became unpredictably — neither she nor her teacher/partner really knows how her leg is going to behave under the stress of a particular move until she tries it, making everything she does experimental in a way it isn’t for anyone else. What she’s doing is gutsy because it means trying something even though honestly, it may turn out you can’t do it, and your coach might be wrong when he encourages you to believe that you can.

Apolo Anton Ohno proudly announced that he was continuing to compete as a speed skater while preparing his routine. While theoretically admirable, this approach seems awfully risky in a field that does, in fact, require considerable practice. Paired with 18-year-old Julianne Hough, Apolo made it through his cha-cha (to “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”), but he moved his feet surprisingly little, and while the performance had speed, it lacked technique, as the judges noted.

In the end, the season opener failed to identify a clear early favorite along the lines of Mario Lopez last year, but it also failed to identify a true train wreck. Laila Ali, Ian Ziering and Joey Fatone all look to be comers, and Leeza Gibbons and Shandi Finnessey look unlikely to rally fan support. Fortunately for some, there’s another performance show next Monday before the first results show, so presumably, there are chances to recover for those who started weak. But for the moment, it’s actually a horse race, and that’s a good thing.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.