"So You Think You Can Dance' is unique among reality shows in that the talent gap among the top competitors is nearly nonexistent. Each of the four finalists has shown they have the skills to make it as professionals dancers, and the judges remind them of that every week.
Picking the most deserving contestant is tricky, since even the judges have a hard time evaluating some routines because of the choreography.
Wednesday night saw one Wade Robson number get a series of "Uh, I don't get it" responses from the bench, while hip-hop specialist and guest judge Dan Karaty spent the evening making it clear that he bowed to ballroom expert Mary Murphy on the technical aspects of most of the numbers.
That explains why the stated goal of the competition is to pick America's "favorite" dancer, rather than the best. This isn't "American Idol," where the producers are trying to sell compact discs.
What's being sold here is the "So You Think You Can Dance" brand name and dance in general, which means the judges don't have to guess at whether a contemporary dancer, a b-dance specialist, or a ballroom whiz would sell the most tickets and get the most TV airtime.
All four of the remaining finalists this season are skilled enough that it's going to be tough to argue that whoever wins is undeserving.
But somebody has to win the grand prize of $250,000, and ironically enough the same two families as last year may be the ones fighting it out for the top spot.
Last season, Benji Schwimmer won the competition, and Travis Wall came in second. This season, the favorite among the women looks to be Lacey Schwimmer, Benji's younger sister. And the best bet among the men is probably Danny Tidwell, Travis' adopted brother.
Will the Schwimmer dynasty roll on? Will the Wall-Tidwell faction gain some revenge for last year's defeat? Or will one of the other two finalists disappoint them both and emerge as the fan favorite? Odds are good that the show's producers will milk the drama for every second of Thursday's two-hour results show, but chances are that the Schwimmer clam will need to build another trophy case.
Handicapping the four finalists:
Lacey Schwimmer (30 percent chance of winning)Lacey has spent the entire season as the favorite. Alone among the finalists, she never had to dance for her life on the results show.
She's the contestant who's always been able to inspire people to vote.
And while viewers spent much of the season voting for pairs rather than individuals, there's no doubt that Lacey carried some of her partners to safety. When the contestants switched partners after five weeks, her former teammate Kameron Bink was immediately voted off the show.
Lacey comes by her popularity honestly. She's a youth dance champion and has been consistently great in the pairs dances. Her main weakness is that she sometimes forgets her steps on her solos.
But even when she falters a bit, her personality carries her onward.
Playing to the crowd is her huge competitive advantage, in that she manages to engage the audience while maintaining the flow of the dance, rather than shamelessly mugging for the cameras (although she can do that as well). She's got the showmanship that everyone else lacks.
It also might help that the winners of the first two seasons were guys. As judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe pointed out in his final comments, it's probably in the best interest of the show to see a girl win this year, and Lacey's the best bet to break that barrier.
Danny Tidwell (27 percent)If the goal was to find the most gifted dancer in the competition, Danny would win.
He's both graceful and athletic, and showcased both of those traits on Wednesday's dance-off; battling with Neil in a Mia Michaels contemporary routine after gliding across the stage with Lacey in a Viennese Waltz. He's been flawless for the past month, and even when he spent three weeks among the bottom three vote-getters the culprit was his perceived arrogance rather than any technical flaws.
Since he managed to erase that perception, he's soared past his rivals in the eyes of the judges. "There are no words. (Season one contestant Blake McGrath) and you have been the two best dancers ever on this show. Every young man on this show should aspire to be as good as you," Nigel said after his Wednesday solo, which rated a standing ovation from all three judges.
The judges love him, and have loved him for a long time. But the voters were slower to warm up to Danny's style, and he may have been too far behind Lacey to catch up.
Neil Haskell (23 percent)If the teenage girl fanbase for this show is similar to what it is for "American Idol," Neil is a big threat to capture the title.
As fellow finalist Sabra Johnson pointed out before their pairs dance, the shrieks that greet Neil whenever he hits the dance floor are audible even with the mute button. It gets so loud it almost drowns out Mary Murphy's screams from the judges' stand.
Much like the similarly-named Eddie Haskell of "Leave it to Beaver" fame, he can play both the straight-faced graceful contemporary artist as well as the jokester rebel. Perhaps because of that personality, it seemed to take him longer than most to get the judges to really take him seriously. He's gotten better as the weeks have passed, and peaked at the right time to make the final four.
However, he's not quite as skilled as Danny, and is much clumsier at playing to the audience than Lacey. His expressions while dancing have tended to be more over-the-top than necessary, but if they get the tweens burning up the phone lines, that won't matter.
Sabra Johnson (20 percent)
All the judges agree that Sabra is an inspiration to those who take up an interest in dance late. She's only been dancing for four years, but that's been enough to bring her to a point where it looks like she was born with her dancing shoes on.
Sabra was among the bottom three vote-getters during the first week of eliminations, and looked like she was going nowhere. Dan Karaty said Wednesday that he felt early in the competition that Sabra was being carried by her partner, b-dance Dominic Sandoval. But the longer she's stayed on the show, the better she's looked, and the judges have been eager to give her advice on what dance styles to concentrate on when her commitment to the show is over.
It's a testament to how good the competition is that all of her progress still makes her the underdog. She needed to outshine the competition Wednesday to have a legitimate shot, but everyone else danced equally well. The judges praised her lavishly, but they did the same to everyone else as well.
She probably had too much ground to make up for that to be good enough, but like all the other finalists, she won't have to worry about finding work anytime soon regardless.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.