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‘Stars’ is plain old summer fun

Dancing reality show keeps footing at top of Nielsens
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

After “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” few people would be surprised if ABC scored another hit series from out of left field. But nobody expected goofy reality competition “Dancing with the Stars” to become the biggest summer breakout since “Survivor.”

Ballroom dancing may be experiencing a revival, but serious dance competitions still draw smaller audiences than dog shows, and in the indelicate demographic language of television, they “skew old”. And ABC’s last attempt at a competition of C-and-D-list celebrities was the totally forgettable “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”

But somehow, not only did “Dancing with the Stars” rocket to the top of the Nielsens from its first week and stay there, it’s scoring advertiser-pleasing numbers in the coveted 18-49 demographic.

Under the untranslatable British title “Strictly Come Dancing,” the original show showcased BBC personalities, including soap actors, newsreaders, garden show hosts and the bloke from “Bargain Hunt” (best described as an antiques game show). In recently completed versions in Australia and New Zealand, the “Stars” included political celebrities (including the founder of a minor populist party and “the first transsexual in the world to be elected to parliament”). But the ABC version uses a well-calculated mix of personalities (not really "stars"), each appealing to a different audience segment.

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The most famous are Evander Holyfield, retired heavyweight boxer with an above-average reputation as a nice guy, and Trista Sutter, half of the only couple matched up by ABC’s “Bachelor/Bachelorette” series to get married. Recognizable, if not by name, are John O’Hurley, who has extended his “Seinfeld” role as catalog mogul J. Peterman into a personal image as TV’s most lovable pomposity, and Rachel Hunter, ex-Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and "Stacy's Mom" from the popular music video. Another ABC insider is Kelly Monaco, whose popular role on the unpopular soap “Port Charles” earned her a gig on “General Hospital,” and filling out the mix of resumés is Joey McIntyre, of the distantly past boy band “New Kid on the Block.”

Off to a slow startThe first moments of the first episode were not all that encouraging.  Discovering that the ubiquitous Tom Bergeron was co-hosting brought three words to my mind: “Hollywood Square Dance,” but his devotion to groaner humor (“Let’s get ready to rumba!”) helps to set the show’s less-than-serious tone.

Before the first dance, a previously filmed segment showed the pro dancer paired with Old Kid Joey McIntyre admitting she’d had a teenage crush on him, raising the question “does every reality show have to include a couple hooking up?”

Fortunately, the only personal storyline the show has focused on since is O’Hurley’s weight loss during his dance-training regimen, and his now-regretted pledge that, if he reached his weight goal, he’d wear a red Speedo for the final dance. The first dance routine revealed a bit of musical pandering, as the Muzak-y orchestra and generic vocalists showed America that it is possible to cha-cha-cha to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.”

But once all the obvious distractions were set aside, the inescapable center of the show — the dance routines themselves — are a delight to watch, both when the celebrities are better than expected and as bad as feared. The credit for that (and for much of the success of the whole show) must go to the professional dancers with whom the "Stars" are paired. The routines are well-designed to bring out the most from the non-pros’ skill levels and personalities, without ever making them look as if they’re being dragged around the dance floor by their hair. Without even recognizing the celebrities, you can always tell them apart from the pros, but you can still tell they’re working hard, and having a ball in the ballroom.

If there was one member of this troupe who wasn’t keeping to the spirit of the show, it was former Bachelorette Trista Sutter. She dropped comments about feeling uncomfortable dancing with anyone but her husband, and America wondered if the lady doth protest too much. Meanwhile, between the first and second shows, an embarrassing "vote for me" e-mail she'd apparently sent to out was leaked to the Defamer gossip blog. It was a relief to see Trista and her attitudes eliminated first, even before Holyfield, the muscle-bound fighter who clearly struggled to keep up with the ever-faster dances he was given to do.

No Simons and PaulasWhich brings us to the judging and the scoring — which are two different things. The judges are Len Goodman, a longtime ballroom judge with a perfect poker face, Bruno Tonioli, an almost stereotypically Italian music-video choreographer, and Carrie Ann Inaba, an experienced stage and TV choreographer, most recognized for doing a Lucy Liu caricature in an “Austin Powers” movie. There isn’t an obvious Simon or Paula in this group; each has delivered a fair share of encouragement and critique (usually to the wild over-reaction of the studio audience, the only participants in this show who take it all too seriously). Although Goodman has committed the unforgivable TV sin of over-eloquence, making an analogy to gardens that he intended as criticism but was generally mistaken for praise (giving Bergeron a running joke that goes over his own head).

But the judges’ 10-point-scale (through week 4, nobody’s awarded a 10 yet) is the only straightforward part of the scoring process. The margins between best and worst performance are flattened into a simplified ranking system (1 for worst, going up 1 point for each place), and then combined with a similar ranking for the home-audience vote, the figures for which are, like “American Idol”, a tightly-kept secret. This is further complicated by the fact that the judges’ judgments are limited to the current performance while the audience vote is for the past week's dancing.

In the case of a tie, the rules state that the audience ranking would prevail, ensuring that the "Star" with the lowest popular vote is eliminated, explaining last week's inexplicable result when Rachel Hunter, praised enthusiastically by the judges and always in first or second place, was voted off the dance floor. The only thing more disappointing was when O’Hurley finished his dance too out-of-breath to utter his usual urbane witticisms.

“Dancing With the Stars” is an hour of eye candy, but much lower in empty calories than most TV guilty pleasures. Trista’s concerns aside, the show’s sexual content is minimal: the women’s costumes wouldn’t get a second glance on an awards show’s red carpet,  and even the prospect of O’Hurley’s Speedo is mostly comical.

NASCAR-type spectators anticipating some painful on-stage accident have been sorely disappointed, even when McIntyre leaped over his partner during his jive dance. And the drama over who the ultimate dancing star will be is not the driving force behind this show. It could be argued that there’s more suspense over who they’ll recruit for a second batch of shows, and what it will displace on ABC’s fall schedule.

And maybe that’s the point. Like a successful dance performance, “Dancing with the Stars” floats effortlessly across the TV screen.  It’s plain fun to watch, even if (or maybe especially if) you don’t know a tango from a rumba, the Bachelorette from Stacy’s Mom, or a garden from a dance floor.

is the online alias of a writer from Southern California.