Season 7’s Top 4: With Great Power Comes Blatant Posturing
August 4th, 2010
Well, America, the power is finally in your hands.
I’ve written briefly in the past about how So You Think You Can Dance represents a strange sort of mediated democracy, in that the judges maintain control over who goes home (albeit out of a Bottom Three selected by America) for a large portion of the competition – while it purports to awarding the title of “America’s Favourite Dancer,” America isn’t involved in the process until the finals begin, and even then their influence is limited up until a certain point.
While Season Seven has seen a lot of changes for the series, the one I find most interesting is that Nigel Lythgoe and his producers chose to wait until the final week before the finals to turn things over to America – instead of taking control halfway through the competition, as we’ve seen in previous years, America gets to make one single un-aided decision regarding an elimination.
I’m intensely curious to know whether this was something they had planned in advance, or whether it was – like most of the season – an on-the-fly decision which resulted from the producers’ access to each week’s voting results. I raise this point not to suggest that there was some kind of conspiracy, but rather to emphasize how there was something about tonight’s show which felt decidedly manufactured, as if America was being expressly sold these contestants as a result of their newfound power. This usually happens at this late stage in the competition, but part of what has made the last few weeks so engaging was the sense of looseness about it – without the injuries, I think this could have been a really exciting season, and I felt like I was being sold the idea of that excitement tonight rather than actually allowing it to come through in the performances.
Instead, it seems like the show was more focused than ever on selling us this particular set of contestants, which made for a less enjoyable show than in previous weeks.
In case you haven’t heard, Lauren is the only girl remaining. It’s something that we’ve heard for quite a long time now, I feel this may be the reason why Nigel and Co. kept control of this competition as long as they did. I think they were terrified that they would be left with five male dancers, and so I think they kept control so that, in the instance she fell to the bottom of the voting, they could save her. My other going theory is that Kent is so far ahead in the voting, and so clearly alone at the top as a result of Alex’s premature exit and Billy’s inability to connect with the audience, that they wanted to make sure that potential competitors (read: Lauren and Robert) would have a chance to develop into theoretical threats to his ascendancy. If it was the former, their plan wasn’t actually necessary: while Ashley was the favourite girl before her injury left her on the sidelines, Lauren quickly picked up that mantle and has smoothed pretty easily towards the finale. However, if it was the latter, there was nothing that could really be done: this show needed a Top 20 in order for anyone to challenge Kent Boyd for this time, and since that wasn’t going to happen the producers really had no ability to stop the Kent train from charging into the station.
What struck me about the Top Four performance show was how carefully the judges focused on the “journey” of each dancer as an individual. While there was a (limp, uninteresting) group routine from Tyce Diorio to open the show, the show chose not to have the contestants dance together as they have in recent weeks. This year has been all about the individual, and so it’s fitting that they chose to put the group number at the front (where everyone would forget about it by the time they voted, which Tyce was kind enough to help facilitate) and instead have each dancer paired with two different All-Stars. The performances were on the whole quite good, but something about them felt regimented and business-like – instead of experiencing them dance, I felt like I was being pitched each individual contestant, which wasn’t helped by the intensely personal showcase videos which more or less entirely ignored their dancing. I understand that their personal growth is a key component to the show, but in past seasons I felt as if those clip reels would have also focused on the highlights of their time on the show, and those were almost entirely absent.
The result, for me, was a carefully designed pitch for each contestant organized by the judges: since they no longer have actual control over the competition, it seemed as if they were working in lockstep with the production efforts to emphasize key parts of each dancer’s journey. Most specifically, the judges quite clearly did everything in their power to end Adechike’s journey: as Donna Bowman put it, his segments had the sense of a eulogy, the judges pointing out his flaws and then building up his “future potential” without any discussion of how he’s grown throughout the competition (perhaps because, by all estimations, all he’s done is smile more often). By comparison, they emphasized how Lauren had become a woman, and how Kent had become a more controlled and mature dancer, and how Robert had taken everything which had been thrown at him and done it brilliantly. And while normally I feel as if the judges sort of take a step back and allow the dancing to remain the focus, here the stories of each contestant were so front and centre that it was if the judges were leaping through my television screen and showing me how to dial in my votes for anyone but Adechike.
It perhaps wasn’t helpful that Tyce Diorio, the most odious of the show’s personalities, was with the judges this week – in the week where the judges lost their power over the competition, his exhaustive critiques (or what I sat through before reaching for the remote) did little to help keep the episode about the performers rather than the artifice of the competition. Travis Wall’s contemporary piece was an evocative piece of work which ensured that Kent remains the frontrunner heading into the finale, and both ballroom numbers did a good job of highlighting the evolution of Lauren and Robert as contestants on the series, but the producers were so focused on making sure that America was prepared for the power being handed to them that it got in the way of just sitting back and enjoying the show. And while the season has faced many challenges which seemed to distract from the notion of celebrating dance, this week managed to do so in the same week when the show was supposed to become less, rather than more, manipulated by the powers that be.
- Like Donna, I was shocked when Melissa Etheridge started playing for Adechike’s contemporary routine – it just didn’t seem like the right music to fit the piece, which makes me wonder if they had a last minute music switch (which seems unlikely, but you never know) or whether there was some sort of mixing issue which made it especially atonal.
- Maybe it’s just because I wrote a blog post about it and keep seeing Google searches come in, but did anyone else think that Travis’ “Stabbed in the Back” routine may have been inspired by his altercation with Nigel earlier this season? Anyone? Bueller?
- Similarly on the “it might have just been me” train, I did have some questions about the nature of the two characters’ friendship in the final dance: I’m not suggesting that two guys dancing contemporary together must be romantic, but there was a passion and intensity to the choreography which suggested something beyond mere friendship. Considering that Adam brought today’s decision regarding Proposition 8 into the episode’s narrative, the intensity of the routine simply made me wonder whether there was a deeper level to the story being told which didn’t make it to air, is all.
- I love how clear it is that Nigel is the only judge who actually enjoys Disco, and that its continued presence on the series is entirely the result of his affection for it and not due to any sort of artistic merit. The fact of the matter is that Kent is too small to make Disco interesting, and the show would have been better off without the style.