It’s hard to believe, but this is the seventh season of “So You Think You Can Dance.” The show is a perennial summer hit, elevating the often forgotten art form into something that a surprising number of viewers consider must-see TV when it is far too hot outside to do anything but sit inside in the air conditioning.
However, elements of the show were perceived to have gotten stale over the years, so executive producer/judge Nigel Lythgoe and company delivered major changes this time around. Adding to that drama is the fact the program is brought to you by many of the same players responsible for “American Idol,” which means this may be a preview of what we’ll see when the Simon-less singing competition resumes in January.
So far it’s been … interesting.
In general, the moves have worked as intended and added some spice to what may have been a bland formula. Having the judges tell the last 24 contenders individually — at the dancers’ homes or over the phone — whether or not they had made it to the final 11 was a nice touch. Broadcasting in HD for the first time is snazzy, but do we give the execs credit for doing so now or do we ding them for not doing so before?
Raising the bar
Those are just cosmetic. The big changes have been the structure of the competition itself, which cut the pool of hopefuls almost in half, from 20 in previous seasons to 11 this time around. That has effectively raised the bar earlier than ever, and if you ever forget that, don’t worry because the judges are apparently ordered to remind us of that fact 17 times per episode.
I wouldn’t have thought this would be that big of a deal, since even with the extra nine hopefuls the show still had what was among the most talented groups of young dancers in the country. However, what this has done is eliminate the usual month-long lag until the competition gets going.
Most reality talent competitions pick a few finalists who wilt under the pressure of the bright lights, but the smaller group has eliminated that here. Speeding up the process has made the elimination episode difficult to watch, since even at this early stage, somebody really good is getting the boot.
The shrinking of the field also eliminated the need for the dancers to compete as partners with their fellow newbies each week. Instead, their partners are the stars and favorites of the previous seasons.
On a positive, this gives the optimists among us the hope that we will actually see the current contestants again once the season is over, because if all else fails, they can come back. It also keeps contenders from getting their competition derailed by a poor partner, or carried by a bad one.
For pessimists, this increases the sense that the show is becoming “Dancing With the Stars Lite.” It also eliminates the unintentional comedy that used to come when a partnership of hip-hop and jazz dancers had to do a Broadway routine, or a pair of contemporary dancers drew the krumping bit.
Since the alumni dancers only go with their specialty, the contestants are guaranteed a partner who can do the job. Moreover, it can shift the focus away from the competitors and skew the votes: If you liked Neil Haskell in season three, who is to say that your vote for Ashley Galvan in week one of season seven wasn’t for his efforts rather than hers?
Bring back the screaming
That brings us to the judges, the area under the most scrutiny.
A few months ago, “SYTYCD” was in the same situation that “Idol” is now. It had to replace Mary Murphy on the podium, and while Murphy filled the Paula Abdul role as far as criticism goes, she was a lot like Simon Cowell in that she was the figure the show promoted.
Commercials didn’t depict Nigel Lythgoe’s criticisms, perhaps because they are usually dull or take a long time to get to the point, but Murphy’s screams of approval and catchphrases like the Hot Tamale Train were much easier to sell. People loved her or hated her, but she was always worth paying attention to.
She was replaced by two new permanent-for-this-season judges, Adam Shankman and Mia Michaels. Though the duo has been fine so far, something has been lost in the translation, and there isn’t the same spark or chemistry there yet. Perhaps it will develop over the course of the season, but even though I can now break out the crystal glassware without fearing that Murphy’s yells will shatter it, I’d rather have her back.
The other problem is that the viewers at home don’t seem to care what the judges opinions are. In case you don’t get it yet, they would really, really prefer that you started showing some love to the women, since we’re already down to three just a fortnight into the competition. And yet, the first two dancers eliminated were women, and only one guy has even been in the bottom three so far. As always, it always comes down to the viewers, and whether these changes succeeded or failed won’t be determined until we look at the ratings at the end of the season.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @craigberman.