There are so many reasons to dislike ABC’s long-running competition series Dancing with the Stars. It’s over-the-top, often wildly so. It’s blatantly manipulative and aggressively formulaic. Co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet is a robot. The show fetishizes competitors’ injuries. The title is a misnomer (the “Stars” part, anyway). The rules are arbitrary.
And yet? I like it. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.
I don’t have as much time to watch it as I used to, but whenever I tune in, I enjoy it. Sure, it’s profoundly silly. But that’s what I like about it. It’s unabashedly silly. When the contestants don skimpy and outlandishly over-fringed costumes, shaking and shimmying around kitschy sets and cartoonish props, it’s quite self-aware. The ridiculousness is an asset to the show, not a liability. Rather than taking itself too seriously, Dancing with the Stars takes its un-seriousness seriously. It’s a winning contrast to self-serious competition shows like The X Factor, which promised its first season winner a $5 million recording contract and a superstar Pepsi commercial on the Super Bowl. Melanie Amaro has yet to release an album, and her commercial was a dud. High stakes don’t always make for high drama.
Winning Dancing with the Stars isn’t a boon to anyone’s career or a stop on the road to superstardom. The mirrorball is a lark, and the show treats it as such. It’s a mirrorball, for heaven’s sake. I don’t expect Kellie Pickler to pursue a dancing career in the future, just as previous winners like Donald Driver, Hines Ward and Kelly Monaco have hardly become full-time professional dancers. The “celebrities” who sign up to compete in this show do it for the bragging rights and, in some cases, the physical and mental challenge that dance training requires.
And that’s another aspect of Dancing with the Stars I like. It takes dancing seriously. The judges and pros emphasize particularities of technique that I still don’t understand after watching the show for several years. Furthermore, the power of dance as a form of artistic expression rarely goes unnoticed. There’s something quaint and charming about a bunch of rich, entitled celebrities striving for artistic brilliance rather than the promise of money or a career.
The caliber of dancing on the show also contributes to the plentiful entertainment value. Pro dancers like Karina Smirnoff, Tony Dovolani, Cheryl Burke, Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy and especially Derek Hough have consistently proven themselves as masterful instructors and world-class showmen and show-women. The results shows are filled with unnecessary but nonetheless spectacular “Macy’s Stars of Dance” performances which further showcase dance’s versatility and dynamism. At times the show overflows with choreography, “hip action” and “footwork.”
Host Tom Bergeron is at the center of these merits, occupying two roles with equal professionalism. He’s as sympathetic and competent a TV host as you can find, giving Ryan Seacrest a run for his money with his impressive ability to navigate a massively complicated production with relative ease. His crowning moment in this role came when Marie Osmond fainted on-air in season five. Without missing a beat, Bergeron calmly sent the show to commercial. When the show returned after an extended commercial break, Bergeron cracked a joke about the affair without trivializing Osmond’s condition.
Bergeron’s second strength, one that Seacrest rarely demonstrates even if he often strives for it, lies in comedy. Bergeron is extremely quick on his feet, and he channels that skill into gently ribbing the sillier aspects of the show he’s been asked to ostensibly take seriously. He mocks the judges for being indecisive and catty, the contestants for blurting out non-sequiturs during the breathless post-performance interviews, the producers for assigning bizarre theme nights and dredging up obscure dance styles, even the network for placing stars of other shows in the audience for promotional purposes. Rarely does an episode go by without a few well-timed quips and jaunty movements, little winks to the audience that keep us anchored down amid the sea of crazy.
Dancing with the Stars is a spectacle. It’s not deep or intellectually stimulating or profound, but it’s earnest, consistent and pleasurable. (Some might call it a guilty pleasure, but I don’t believe in such things.)
I’m not ashamed to call myself a fan.
And now, take a look at my favorite “Dancing with the Stars” contestant, J.R. Martinez: