‘Dancing With the Stars’ Season 13 Premiere

I just mourn all the antics we’re going to miss.

— Tom Bergeron

Metta World Peace got the boot first. On Dancing With the Stars 13th season premiere, the artist formerly known as Ron Artest got the lowest judges’ scores, and the fans didn’t save him. Clearly upset that the show’s biggest eccentric is already gone, announcer Tom Bergeron anxiously told him he’s welcome back for visits.

Luckily, this season retains some star power, most notably the charming imp David Arquette. This isn’t always the case for this venerable reality franchise. Typically, Dancing With the Stars makes the efforts of non-dancers working hard seem endearing, as they risk humiliation, live, in front of millions of viewers. The results are sometimes breathtaking, as novices convey touching artistry and inner strength in their dancing. But the cast is often an assortment of D-list reality stars who can be hart to root for (this season’s batch includes the lesser Kardashian, Rob, and George Clooney’s ex, Elisabetta Canalis) or performers who already dance but are trying to jumpstart stalled careers, like Season 10 winner Nicole Scherzinger.

The lack of celebrity wattage can enhance the drama that’s based in the hard work of dancing. We see the cast members at their most vulnerable (visibly fearful as they fly through the air), their bodies often buckling under the seven-hour-a-day practices and physically challenging performances. Their interviews and the rehearsal segments are frequently quite compelling. This season, Chaz Bono noted that, after fighting to get on the show as the first transgender contestant, he saw that as an achievement, but now he has to “actually do it.”

His observation underlines the show’s ostensible focus on the dancing, but also indicates its frequently contradictory politics of casting and voting, not to mention dancing. Ballroom dancing reinforces stereotypical gender roles: the man leads, the woman follows; he is the frame, she is the showcased object. But in its casting (like Bono and Carson Kressley this season), the show often questions gender role stereotypes as well as heteronormativity. By encouraging macho sports stars to embrace their inner sequins (like Metta World Peace), the program helps its audience to question masculine stereotypes.

At the same time, however, Dancing With the Stars regularly tries to make female athletes more feminine, as the judges and professional dancers criticize their “masculine” movements. When, during this season’s first episode, Hope Solo demonstrated that her muscles are bigger than partner Maksim Cmerkovskiy’s, he set about making her do “feminine arms,” and the judges encouraged her to find her “inner feminine grace.” She responded by challenging his masculinity and reinforcing stereotypes of ballroom dancing as unmanly, slamming Maks by saying, “You’re more girly than any guy I’ve met.” He assessed that she needs more “media training.”

In spite of those reactionary moments, the series generally seeks diversity and acceptance, particularly when it recognizes and supports differently-abled bodies (see: previous contestants like Heather Mills, dancing with an artificial leg, deaf activist Marlee Maitlin, and octogenarian Cloris Leachman). This season features war veteran and actor J.R. Martinez, who suffered severe facial burns in Iraq (to its credit, the show didn’t paper over the horrors of his experience). He was the most impressive “star” dancer in the premiere episode, but his positive personality and infectious spirit were even more gripping than his performance.

In this, Martinez reflects the show’s focus on “personality,” for dancers and for stars. As previous seasons have shown us, personality can triumph over technical skill, because fan votes count for half the scores. The show is “going big” this season, with a bigger set, billed as the “tallest TV set in the world,” to go along with its prize, the largest mirror ball trophy in the world. But even before now, the big characters have been used to generate appeal and publicity, and sometimes, controversy.

For the moment, Kressley and Arquette are in a dead heat in the contest for Best Personality. Arquette brought with him the supporting star power of Courteney Cox (from whom he is currently separated) and their seven-year-old daughter Coco in the audience. Appearing an adorable clown in his dance and interviews, he brimmed with joy and offered self-deprecating humor. He also showed off his famously offbeat fashion sense, featured in a montage of his practice outfits, including fedoras and a unitard and gold lame cape (he described this as his version of a ballroom superhero). Arquette’s quirk factor was enhanced by the inclusion of Pee-wee Herman as the other guest at his table.

Kressley, parodying Jagger while dancing to Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” was high-octane and irresistible, his smart sequined suit proving his fashion chops once again. He helped the show to make fun of itself with his knowing wit and his playful stalking of Maks. As individuals and terrific team players, Kressley and Arquette remind us that dancing is a means of self-expression and community building, entertaining and also affecting.

RATING 8 / 10