At first glance, "So You Think You Can Dance" (Fox, Wednesdays, 9:00 pm ET) seems like a highly unlikely hit. Partner dancing in public naturally suffers from the disadvantages of being widely considered something less than entirely cool, being short of superstars, and being associated with bizarre and hideous costumes; all impressions that "Dance" does not do all that much to dispel.
Furthermore, it seems like there has to be a bottom to the national affection for the talent-show format, and to the ability of the "Idol" cabal to exploit it. Simon Cowell is over on NBC having a hit with "America's Got Talent," having already completed a season of "American Inventor" earlier this year, and now Nigel Lythgoe (who doubles as one of the hosts) and Simon Fuller are producing "Dance." How many eager hopefuls can we really be expected to stomach in a season?
The answer, apparently, is "quite a few." "Dance" has scored huge ratings so far this season, even on a very crowded Wednesday schedule that just picked up the third season of "Project Runway" in addition to "Talent" and Mark Burnett's "Rock Star." Combine all of this with the way we are frequently promised that reality television is merely an lengthy flash in a large pan that will inevitably flame out soon, and "Dance" seems to have everything working against it. So what gives?
For one thing, there's the learning. Sure, at first, a show like "Dance" doesn't seem to have much to do with viewer education. Feathers, wiggling, and swollen knees, yes. But not education. And some of what it does teach isn't any different from what you'll learn from plenty of other shows. It doesn't take a dance show to teach a viewer to pursue her favorites, resent those who threaten to upstage them, and develop complicated theories to explain their early departures.
Surprisingly, though, this is a show with an educational component. Because as craftily made as "Dance" is on its own, its current popularity has benefited from being part of a broader, and quite unexpected, wave of interest in dancing. That wave includes not only the well-received documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" and the considerably less well-received Antonio Banderas vehicle "Take The Lead," but also the towering champion of recent summer reality success, "Dancing With The Stars."
We really are a bunch of know-it-alls, and we love to know it all about something new. What's more, once we know it, we want to use it again. If we've gone to the trouble to figure out what a paso doble is, even if we learned from Drew Lachey the somewhat questionable notion that it should be performed to "Thriller," then another opportunity to form strong opinions about someone else's paso doble comes as a lovely surprise. Words that would have been wildly unfamiliar or only vaguely meaningful a year or two ago suddenly are additional opportunities to sound smart.
What this means is that it makes sense for successful shows in the same topic area to feed each other, and for that effect to be the most pronounced when the knowledge gained is the most obscure. Everyone who left "Dancing With The Stars" with excess knowledge about the samba was ready to burn it off when "So You Think You Can Dance" came along. Both shows were highly successful last summer, and "Dancing With The Stars" was a hit again this spring, so it makes sense the roll would continue for this summer's installment of "Dance," which it has.
To its base of enjoyable arcane knowledge, "Dance" adds a dose of reality and drama similar to that seen on more socially driven shows like "Survivor" and "The Apprentice." It has taken advantage of one of the natural elements of a dance show, which is that its contestants naturally compete in pairs. This season, for the most part, pairs were kept together from week to week in the early going unless one of them was eliminated, forcing couples to continue trying to force their styles and work ethics to coexist, and increasing the likelihood that delicious tension and drama will emerge.
The show also has something that "Dancing With The Stars" doesn't have, which is an extended train-wreck audition period before the good competition starts. While the statistical majority of the episodes are spent with allegedly talented dancers, this show shares with "Idol" the advantage of being able to, at the outset, draw in viewers with short attention spans with the promise of people falling down, bravely announcing that their brand of dance will bring peace to the world, and otherwise producing a horrific spectacle before agreeably departing. This season featured a guy who called himself "Sexy" and brought his mother to the audition, a few people who injured themselves during their big moments, and several people whose definitions of "dance" were broader than most. It's a simple deal, really: come for the insanity, stay for the quality.
"So You Think You Can Dance" was not an obvious pick for big success. Plenty of shows with cosmetic similarities to it have come and gone without leaving so much as a scratch on the public consciousness — remember "Tommy Hilfiger's The Cut," "Are You Hot?", and Simon Cowell's own "Cupid"? But for a number of reasons, we seem to be in the middle of a minor renaissance in the area of cutthroat waltz contests, and at the moment, some of the same parties who have made so much money off our previously undiscovered love of competitive singing are capitalizing nicely on this as well.