After being absent for the first three weeks of "Dancing With the Stars 5," co-host Samantha Harris is returning from maternity leave Monday night. Her absence has been both a welcome respite and an unbearable void because she is at once the most unpredictably entertaining part of the ABC reality competition series — and the worst.
Samantha has been the co-host of the series for three full seasons, having replaced first-season co-host Lisa Canning at the start of the second season. When she's not bantering with co-host Tom Bergeron, Samantha's job mostly consists of talking backstage with each dancing couple, where they learn their scores. She interviews them and then encourages the public to vote.
Because it's her job to do this with the same enthusiasm for each pair, and because she also has a lot of time to fill, Samantha often babbles nonsensically. That is, she asks the dancers obvious questions about the score, like a local TV news journalist asking a family how they feel now that their home just burned down. She also gets overly excited about how desperately each couple needs votes to stay in the competition, framing every telephone call and online vote as a life-or-death situation.
In fairness, this is clearly not of her own making. Drew Lachey, the winner of the second season and the co-host of the upcoming spin-off, "Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann," was filling in for Samantha, and he was clearly given the same, overly simple task.
Job not well done
Still, despite its simplicity, Samantha doesn't always do her part as the show's cheerleader very well. Once, she revealed the dancers' scores before the judges held up their paddles. She jumped into her post-score interview as if she hadn't just missed her cue to hand off to the announcer for the judges' scores.
She eventually tried to explain that to viewers, but did not recover gracefully. After the judges finally held up their paddles, she said, "A little explanation for the viewers at home. The judges put their scores right into their pads that are sitting there at their desks, and so, of course, I got to hear their score. I was so excited for them I let the cat out of the bag a little early. But that's how it works, folks." How what works?
This isn't even her first hosting job nor her first time as a host for a reality show (Samantha hosted FOX's "The Next Joe Millionaire" in 2003). Nor is this her first time in front of a live audience, as she's appeared on "Good Morning America" and "The View."
She was sometimes awkward on those shows too, but here she has a much higher profile, as "Dancing With the Stars" is the second-most popular reality show in the country, following only FOX's "American Idol." She also has much more air time, so her flubs are all the more obvious and regular. Occasional mistakes are expected and forgivable. Three seasons worth of sputtering is not even a pattern, it's a clearly defined style.
Comparing two hosts
As a correspondent for E! News, Samantha works alongside "American Idol" host, Ryan Seacrest, and when "Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" are both airing live in the spring, the two film their respective reality shows in studios that are right next to each other. Spending all that time near Seacrest, she has not, alas, learned anything, as there couldn't be a bigger contrast between his always-easygoing approach and her bumbling awkwardness.
Samantha absolutely cannot. However, Seacrest is nowhere near as funny as Samantha. While his humor is intentional and often stupid or offensive, her humor is almost always hysterical and apparently accidental.
In a now-iconic moment, while teasing an upcoming break, Samantha suddenly started talking as if someone had injected her tongue with too much novocaine, causing her to spontaneously channel Elmer Fudd: "Ooh, well wite after de-de bweak," she said as a bewildered Tom Bergeron turned toward her and started applauding her ridiculousness.
Besides laugh-out-loud moments like that, her hosting is full of grammatical and other errors ("call online," "no hold barred") and various non sequiturs. Most of her backstage conversations have no flow or internal logic. The celebrities deserve credit for not responding to everything she says with a "Huh?"
She's also slightly clueless about her own awfulness. During last season's finale, John Ratzenberger said he wanted Tom Bergeron's job, and Samantha chimed in, "By the way, Tom, no worries, I'm not letting you go" — as if Bergeron would ever be the one between the two of them to get fired.
Though she may be ridiculed and mocked for these and other moments, the fact remains that she is one of the show's unpredictable highlights, a surprise bit of entertainment between dances. That's the key to her value as entertainment: It is completely random.
Samantha may make it through a show without stumbling, but she may also verbally trip and fall on her face a half-dozen times, and for that, she deserves a warm welcome back.