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ABC's 'Dancing With the Stars' returns Monday night

Rick Kushman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

It's near-perfect that "Dancing With the Stars" had a guy quit because the training was too hard, and he once played a character named Big Pussy.

Seriously, "Dancing With the Stars," which returns for another sashay tonight (at 8 EDT on ABC), is exactly the kind of show where that stuff matters. The competition itself is meaningless, erratic and over-the-top - none of that is a complaint, by the way - and the show is cast precisely so we can make Big Pussy jokes.

The man who quit was Vincent Pastore, who played Big Pussy on "The Sopranos," a mob guy now sleeping with the fishes. Pastore is 60 and said in a press statement that he underestimated the physical demands of the show. Fair enough, and at least he dropped out rather than dance like he was, basically, standing, the way rapper Master P blew off Season Two.

ABC replaced Pastore with John Ratzenberger, the beloved know-it-all Cliff Clavin from "Cheers." Not exactly like ABC went for a super athlete, though a spokesperson said Ratzenberger "likes to cut a rug." Besides, the show already uses the trick of getting jocks to change their stripes.

That's the thing about "Dancing With the Stars." It's only a little about the dancing, even less than "American Idol" is about the singing.

That's not to say some of the fun isn't watching a good Paso Doble, and until this thing started in 2005, I swear to you, I never thought I'd write a sentence even close to that. But "Dancing" is more about fish out of water, flopping around a dance floor in some seriously ridiculous clothes and ultimately overcoming odds and hardship to become, uh, not too horrible. (See: Springer, Jerry; last fall's pet dancer.)

Then there's always someone who turns out to be good. Usually it's a former boy-bander or child star. And like with any hit, producers have found a formula for casting the dancers that they're sticking with.

The boy-bander/child star has been a big part of that. Among the characters we've gone through are Drew Lachey, Joey Lawrence and Mario Lopez. This time, we get Joey Fatone, formerly of `N Sync.

The other big one is the athlete group. It started with Evander Hollyfield (playing the really stiff professional jock), but it changed to the plucky-athlete-adapts-to-anything with Jerry Rice and last fall's champ, Emmitt Smith.

This time around, ABC rounded up NBA Hall of Famer Clyde "The Glide" Drexler; short-track speed skater and Olympic gold medalist Apolo Anton Ohno; and Laila Ali, a world champion boxer and daughter of Muhammad Ali.

There's also the White-Men-Can't-Dance character, embodied by Kenny Mayne, Harry Hamlin and, most notably, Tucker Carlson. Not sure they've got someone for that this time, though Ratzenberger would probably qualify if he weren't already playing the loveable, out-of-shape old guy.

Some of the other roles include the country star (in the fall it was Sara Evans, now it's Billy Ray Cyrus); the woman who takes it too seriously (think Lisa Rinna, and probably in the current game, Leeza Gibbons); the former hot model/actress (this time it's Paulina Porizkova), and the current hot model/actress (Miss USA 2004, Shandi Finnessey).

But most of all, there's the biggest fish out of the most water. Clearly, Ratzenberger would also be a contender in that category, but the leader coming in is Heather Mills, Paul McCartney's estranged wife. She'll be dancing on one artificial leg.

Mills said she's doing it to show what disabled people are capable of. Fine. You go, uh, Ms. Courageous Person. But for viewers, tell the truth, you'll be watching Mills for the spectacle.

Because when you boil it down, that's what "Dancing With the Stars" is - a spectacle. And who doesn't like a good spectacle now and then? "American Idol" is also a spectacle, though of a slightly different sort. But only slightly.

"Idol" is the most popular show on TV. "Dancing" is in the top five, drawing more than 21 million viewers last fall. Those shows stand out at the moment as the only real, regular spectacles on television.

And I'm saying "spectacle" in a good way. Not talking about the hideous, train-wreck-kind of TV that includes Springer's day job, or Maury Povich's show, or the daily slanders from one-woman lynch squad Nancy Grace. Those are just ugly.

But real spectacle, like the circus and old-fashioned variety shows, or events like the Super Bowl or even the Olympics, have an innate, natural attraction.

And that's what "Dancing With the Stars" really is, just a big, loud (if fairly dopey) show. It may have no real consequence - winner gets a trophy - but that's no consequence to viewers, though when a spectacle does have some real impact, the way "Idol" (or the Olympics) can be life-changing, all the better.

There's also a suspension-of-irony requirement for people to get involved in watching all this. Clearly, "Dancing With the Stars" is not, technically, cool. It is, like "American Idol," what you make fun of when you're cool.

That, too, is part of the charm of these things. They are certifiably pathetic or unhip or, I dunno, just not cool. But if you give in to them, just abandon hope and dive into the shallowness of it all, it's actually freeing. Just sit there and watch, then get back to being cool later. (Me, I go look for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," "Reno 911!" or repeats of "The Sopranos" to establish some street cred. So far, that hasn't worked.)

There's an attraction to the other side of this, too. Just watch with your eyes perpetually rolled. That can lead to headaches, but it will maintain the ironic cool I can't seem to master.

ABC and the "Dancing" producers know all this, as they know the limits of their show. It moved to Mondays to avoid getting crushed by "Idol." The results show will go to Tuesdays starting next week (no dancer gets the boot this week, all the more time for some fish to be out of that water) at 9 p.m., because eventually Fox will stop running "Idol" all night long. Probably.

By the way, ABC swears Ratzenberger wasn't really a second choice. In the press release announcing that he would join the dance crew, ABC said producers had invited him, but he couldn't do it before because of a "scheduling conflict." OK. Sure. We'll play along. Stupid scheduling conflicts. It's not like this is serious.


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