Dancing with the Stars

When ABC began advertising Dancing with the Stars last June, replete with sequin-bedecked D-listers and mirror balls, the cynical tongue-wagging began. A ballroom dancing competition starring low caliber celebrities hosted by that guy from America’s Funniest Home Videos? Surely, we can do better than this.

The premiere of Season Two, which co-host Tom Bergeron called “bigger, classier than ever!” unveiled several key changes from last summer’s installment, a reflection of ABC’s newfound confidence in the franchise. The roster of “stars” is inflated from six to 10; line-flubbing co-hostess Lisa Canning is replaced with the only slightly more competent Samantha Harris; audience members have apparently been encouraged to dress in formal wear; and there is a new Friday night “results show,” a luxury that only heavy hitters like American Idol have deployed previously.

This season’s roster of contestants again highlights reality TV’s tendency to play fast and loose with the term “star”: Tia Carrere’s biggest claim to fame, Wayne’s World, was in theaters over 13 years ago, Stacy Keibler is so marginal that ABC allegedly misspelled her last name on its initial press release, and not to be rude, but who exactly is Kenny Mayne again?

But in the now ubiquitous “humiliate the D-list celebrity” genre, the caliber of the stars is beside the point. Though the announcer reminds us that Drew Lachey was once a member of 98 Degrees and starred in a Broadway production of Rent, most viewers probably know him as the brother of the gawkerfest known as “Nick and Jessica.” Still, I could not help but be won over by the former boy bander when he started with some good old-fashioned trash talking, smirking into the camera, “There’s gonna be no dance-off this year! We’re gonna win!”

It’s this tongue-in-cheek attitude that slightly elevates Dancing with the Stars above other “celebreality” schlock fare, like But Can They Sing? and Celebrity Fear Factor. When Bergeron announced that his show is “indisputably the best ballroom show of 2006… so far,” he effectively summarized its appeal: the series is bizarre, tacky, and exploitative, and the participants, for the most part, know it.

Of course, the winking self-consciousness of participants like Lachey, the self-lacerating Mayne, and Carrere (who claims that her primary motivation is to work off her postpartum weight), crystallizes when offset by the delusions of some of their colleagues.

George Hamilton is a case in point: I anticipated lots of debonair campiness. Sadly, Hamilton’s biggest mistake in the first episode was to make his desire to be Season Two’s John O’Hurley so overt. Throughout his rehearsal clips, the 66-year-old Hamilton, eager to play the “elegant older gentleman” card that worked so well for his predecessor, came across as a badly tanned knockoff. Immediately after his performance, Hamilton begged the host to “Call 911,” a joke that was much funnier when O’Hurley made a similar one last summer. (Still, for a minute, I actually thought Hamilton was in danger — I mean, the man can’t lift his arm without coughing and wincing.)

Also campy, in her way, tabloid fodder staple Tatum O’Neal provides predictable schadenfreude. Her rehearsal footage revealed a tortured crying scene, and after their successful waltz, her partner conceded that she was a “bit tricky and difficult in the beginning,” which, by the look on O’Neal’s face, was a complete surprise to her. Then, after Samantha Harris complimented O’Neal’s ability to “get into a character” as she danced, the former child star suddenly looked serious, as if accepting another Oscar, and replied, “Mmm-hmmm. Yeah, I used my acting for sure.”

Likewise, although Master P did utter a few zingers (“If [my partner] get tough with me, I’m probably gonna break her fingers”), his repeated protests that he only joined the show to “inspire” the victims of Hurricane Katrina and underachievers in “the ‘hood” wore thin. His dance “routine,” which consisted of standing perfectly still as his Energizer bunny of a partner, Ashly DelGrosso, gyrated frantically around him, was hardly inspiring. In spite of his low score, Friday night’s results show revealed that Master P and Ashly will live to dance another day, while the slightly less terrible Mayne, along with his partner, Andrea Hale, was booted.

But if the stars seem as self-absorbed as last year, this season’s secret weapon is the cadre of professional dancers. Where last year’s hoofers were simply glittery props for their student-partners, this new group is more incorporated into the show’s emotional and sensational trajectories. The Friday night results show was devoted almost solely to performances by the professionals. In fact, my two favorite moments from this show were the unintentionally hilarious sound-bites offered up by two of the male dancers. Lisa Rinna’s Dutch-born partner, Louis van Amstel observed, “When I met Lisa, I knew right there and then, we would have a big bondage.” Even better, Carrere’s stern Russian partner, Maxim Chmerkovskiy, inexplicably described himself thusly: “I am probably like Keanu Reeves, somebody like Neo, very mysterious type of person.” Maxim holds the promise of ever more hyper-masculine posturing, particularly in his “tough love” approach to dance instruction, which includes telling the exhausted, breast-feeding mother that her dance moves are “disgusting.”

But if these tidbits are fun, the show is primarily a competition, inciting legions of posters on ABC’s official message boards. Keep an eye on obvious frontrunners like Stacy Keibler (a former dancer), Rinna (flexible and apparently unafraid, unlike Louis’ former “modest” celebrity partner, Trista Rehn, to be a bit slutty), and cha-cha king Drew Lachey. And don’t discount dark horses Jerry Rice (whose swiveling hips were surprisingly alluring) and O’Neal, who, despite her self-importance, is somewhat regal on the dance floor. Even if Season Two is a reheating of last summer’s fast-food fix, I, for one, am in the mood for leftovers.