In the opening minutes of Dancing with the Stars’ fourth season, host Tom Bergeron informed the viewing audience that this edition would feature the show’s “tallest and youngest competitors ever.” Participants would also include a boxing legend, a former boy band member, two Olympic gold medalists, a country music star, and the first differently abled contestant. The season’s episode revealed other changes too: the judges are more acerbic, the dance routines hotter, and the outfits more revealing than ever before. All this should make this season the best ever, right?
Wrong. Dancing‘s producers are giving us only what we expect. After four seasons, the formula is tired. It’s both too lame and too absurd at the same time. Ratings-wise, Season Four will likely continue to reap the benefits of its large, devoted fan base. But it will attract few new viewers.
In part this is a problem brought on by success: every year, every reality TV show must top itself. Recent efforts to solve it have resulted mostly in debacles. Shows have tried “bigger” stars (Diana Ross and Abba in the case of American Idol), silly gimmicks (the race-based Survivor), increasingly bizarre contests and ridiculous spin-offs. While these “improvements” may excite old viewers looking for something vaguely new, they typically turn off new ones.
One of the most familiar means to appeal to repeat viewers is to typecast. Participants fill roles that attracted attention on previous seasons, instead of being individuals. On Dancing, Clyde Drexler is this season’s Emmitt Smith, who was Season Three’s Jerry Rice, that is, the goofy athlete with moves (Smith won, Rice came in second). The role of supermodel, formerly filled by Rachel Hunter (Season One), is now played by Paulina Porizkova. Mario Lopez (Season Three) begat Ian Ziering, and so on.
This repetition runs counter to the initial appeal of the show. Unlike other reality shows, it didn’t struggle to create personalities and conflicts to showcase them. Whereas Idol must dig every season to find “human interest” angles (thus tainting the “competition,” as the producers know they need marketable stars, often at the cost of talented ones), Dancing‘s participants are, if not “stars,” at least recognizable. Their stories are already written, our fascination with them already assured. (Dancing even has a presence outside the target audience, though all within the Disney Family, evidenced by Matthew Berry‘s tips on Fantasy Dancing with the Stars, over on ESPN.com.)
In order to generate interest in these “human interest” stories, Dancing follows the usual route, “embarrassing” videos of the stars dancing and confessing their faults. “I’m gonna do Dancing with the Stars because it’s gonna make my parents proud,” Ziering tells us. “I like to be good at something instantly and it’s frustrating when I’m not.” He may be a onetime star, but Ian’s just like us, a point that’s hammered home when his partner Cheryl says, “He really knows how to laugh at himself.” Billie Ray Cyrus later says, “You can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take the boy out of Kentucky.” What this has to do with dancing is not clear, but surely some viewers are also from Kentucky.
Prescribed roles or no, a show with so much potential for embarrassment does raise a question about the celebrities who sign up. Why do they do it? For one thing, it looks like 15 minutes aren’t enough. Joey Fatone, former member of NSync, plainly wants more (or at least he wants to be the next Drew Lachey). So does Drexler. He could find equal competition on the golf course without subjecting himself to potential embarrassment. But, winning Dancing will raise one’s Q-rating, at least among the 60-year-old women in the studio audience. The victory could lead to a book deal, or perhaps a line in a movie. Both options are better than toiling in obscurity. Desperate agents suggest desperate measures to their clients.
The inclusion of Heather Mills signals that Dancing‘s producers are struggling for publicity as well. Mills’ leg is amputated below the knee, a fact Bergeron alludes to in the first segment, announcing that the show has its “first competitor with an artificial limb.” Her appearance generated considerable media hype for Dancing, much of it revolving around the possibility that she could lose her leg during a dance. Tasteless, yes, but effective. Not to take away from Mills’ admirable and courageous performance, but her participation brings the circus freak show element of Dancing to an all-time high. What’s next? Midgets and wheelchair-bound dancers?
Or maybe next season, the big gimmick will call in the pros. Dancing with the Stars: The Boy Band Edition has a nice ring to it. Doesn’t Joey Fatone, who spent his much of his 20s dancing his way to fame behind Justin Timberlake, have a huge advantage this season? Wouldn’t it be more fun to watch him battle it out with AJ Maclean, Donnie Wahlberg, and Bobby Brown? Maybe Donnie could get his Oscar-nominated bro Mark to make an appearance. Now that would be worth watching.