The obvious way to look at Wednesday night’s finale of ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars” was as a showdown between football fans and “Saved By The Bell” fans. Who’s more devoted: people who watch games every Sunday afternoon, or people who watch bad comedy every Saturday morning? But in reality, the showdown between Mario Lopez and Emmitt Smith was nothing less than a battle for the show’s soul. Or, really, a battle for what would be the show’s soul if it had one. Emmitt’s victory hit the spot.
From the first week, it was obvious that Mario Lopez was a ringer. Even if you hadn’t seen him dance on shows like “Kids, Incorporated” and, yes, on “Saved By The Bell,” you would have known that this was not his first time on the dance floor, the way it was for a lot of the celebrities involved. Paired with the prickly Karina, Mario started to look like that kid in high-school theater who knows he’s going to get the lead and loves nothing more than making everyone else sit through his audition and doubt themselves. No amount of backstage dimple-flashing and trumped-up humility could ever quite wash away the strut. The kid thought it was in the bag.
Emmitt Smith, on the other hand, was exactly the kind of celebrity who can make this ridiculous show weirdly appealing. He wasn’t a clown, like Jerry Springer. He wasn’t an earnest failure, like Sara Evans. He had the rare combination of natural ability and a capacity and willingness to learn how to do something outside his comfort zone.
For all the talk about unscripted shows (this isn’t really “reality” in the sense) capitalizing on humiliating people, that isn’t really what “Dancing” is about when it’s fun. Well, okay, it was fun to see Tucker Carlson humiliated, but that’s because he’s Tucker Carlson, and he comes across like a bit of a windbag, and total ineptitude on the part of an unappealing person is entertaining.
Smith's victory proved show is still satisfyingly nuttyWhen the show works, it’s because watching someone become good at something they don’t know how to do is satisfying, and watching them discover and develop a natural talent they didn’t know they had is even better. It seems like a lot of credit to give such a fundamentally silly enterprise (“Next up: Jerry Springer performs the paso doble and smashes a prop guitar!”), but it’s quite true: part of the fun is all the learning. The most auspicious thing Emmitt Smith said in the first episode was that he was used to being coached, and it turned out to be true. Emmitt worked hard, and he didn’t complain (much), and sure enough, he kept getting better.
Mario, on the other hand, seemed to see his coaching sessions mostly as opportunities to develop his love-hate relationship with Karina — which apparently went in the direction of “love,” given Tuesday night’s footage of what certainly appeared to be a few stolen smooches. Mario learned the steps for each dance, and his dances were often quite intricate. But there was not the sense that a guy who was not a dancer became a dancer.
That’s the peculiarly nutty fun of this particular show. You take someone who isn’t a dancer, and you see if you can make that person a dancer, and sometimes disaster strikes, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why people like Mario and last season’s Stacy Keibler aren’t quite as compelling as people like Emmitt and last season’s champion Drew Lachey. Looking at Mario in the first week, the logical reaction was, “Wow, Mario Lopez can dance.” But looking at Emmitt, the logical reaction was, “Wow, I can’t believe Emmitt Smith can dance.”
Wednesday night’s finale proved all these points all over again. When the two repeated chosen dances from Tuesday — Emmitt’s samba and Mario’s freestyle — it was clear that Mario’s dance was more technically advanced and probably more perfectly executed. But there wasn’t nearly as much of a gap between what he did and what you would expect him to be able to do as there was in Emmitt’s case. It is the busting of expectations that addicts people to the performances. Who knew Jerry Springer would be so warmly self-deprecating? Who knew Monique Coleman would get so emotional? Who knew Joey Lawrence was so creepy and intense?
There were endless recaps of the season, in which we saw over and over that Mario nailed basically every dance he was given, only taking real hits when he hammed up dances like the quickstep and the tango and was clipped for breaking the rules. Emmitt, on the other hand, was the purest of underdogs. He started out surprisingly promising, took a stumble or two, kept working, and eventually got to be good.
Friends and family in interviews continued to feed the same dynamic. Emmitt’s friends — including fellow football players Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach — were just amazed to see Emmitt able to dance well. Mario’s friends, including “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria and “Showgirls” and fellow “Saved By The Bell” alum Elizabeth Berkeley, were amazed at Mario’s skill level. In fact, Berkeley thought Mario could make it to Broadway. Nobody was suggesting Emmitt was going to Broadway. They were only suggesting he would be by far the most awe-inspiring dancer in any room full of football players — and in most rooms full of people who weren’t born dancers.
When the two pairs talked about their affection for each other, it became even clearer that Emmitt needed to win. Mario and Karina were so busy being coy about their budding relationship that they barely said anything of substance, and Mario did nothing but flash that oddly blank grin as he talked about his affection for her. Emmitt and Cheryl, on the other hand, talked warmly about their bond. At 37, Emmitt is quite a bit older than 22-year-old two-time champion Cheryl, and he brought her to tears when he thanked her, simply and straightforwardly, for being such a good teacher and such a good friend. Who wouldn’t love that?
In the end, the audience was in control. The judges maneuvered themselves to a tie on Tuesday night, so it was all about the popular vote, and the popular vote crowned Emmitt and Cheryl. In all likelihood, nobody who voted was unaware that in a technical dance-off, Mario would beat Emmitt. Emmitt, however, did what the show asks of its celebrities. He started out not knowing what he was doing, and he learned. And sometimes he looked silly, and sometimes he fell down in practice, but he kept going. Strangely enough, that’s really what the audience is looking for. It’s a popularity contest, and Emmitt probably wouldn’t have won without a great deal of personal charm. But he also won because he had going for him the one thing that rescues this show from being completely stupid: he taught himself something difficult.
A few weeks ago, Emmitt said of his efforts on the show, “A real man tries to do something he thinks he cannot do.” In that sense, he got what he came for, and the show got a surprisingly satisfying ending. Besides, never bet against the football fans.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.