Showcase or Showdown?: So You Think You Can Dance and the First Round Elimination


Showcase or Showdown?

June 11th, 2009

I don’t really hide the fact that as far as summer shows go, So You Think You Can Dance? is one of my personal favourites. There’s simply something about its mix of glossy spectacle and talented dancers that makes it just downright enjoyable, whether you know something about dance or whether you, like me, know absolutely nothing about it outside of what you’ve learned from dance-related television programming.

What is perhaps funny about the show, though, is that last night’s first performance show of Season Five was problematically fantastic. Of the 10 couples who performers, eight of them earned raves from the judges, and the way the show works there will be three couples who find themselves in danger of being eliminated. SYTYCD has a unique relationship with the notion of viewer democracy, but it’s not particularly foolproof, and there is every possibility that tonight’s first elimination show could end up with three couples the judges loved placed into the Bottom Three.

And I’m wondering if that’s something that could be, at least somewhat, fixed with a fairly subtle decision that would allow viewers a better sense of these dancers that, before last week, they may have never seen before.

If we take American Idol as the largest example of a democratic piece of television programming, the viewers are involved in the process of picking the final competitors for the prize. They vote in the semi-finals, and even if they haven’t quite met every competitor (see: Kris Allen), a process they were involved in put them where they are. They have seen each competitor sing in a spotlighted fashion, and while they obviously don’t know everything about them they at least can say they crossed their television screen and faced the viewers’ judgment.

But on So You Think You Can Dance?, this isn’t true: the Top 20 dancers are picked in a lengthy Vegas Week that, while documented well by the show’s audition episodes, has no audience involvement. This creates two scenarios:

  • The judges picked every dancer in the Top 20, and with the amount of talent involved in the show it pretty well means that there isn’t going to be anyone who is truly awful, which happens more often during American Idol since the audience is more involved earlier.
  • The dancers who ARE picked are not always those who made the best television, so a good half of the Top 20 dancers are virtual unknowns to the viewing public who is now being asked to vote for them.

The resulting combination is that, when the first performance night comes around, you have a lot of talented dancers and a scenario whereby the only real variable is how well the audience knows them and the quality of their first performance, and oftentimes it can feel as if the former is more important than the latter.

Normally this isn’t a huge deal, since the judges have control over who is actually eliminated up until the Top 10, which gives them the ability to offset such scenarios. However, this year, there isn’t three couples who really struggled, and the two couples who did struggle (Asuka and Vitolio and Tony and Paris) got more screentime than some of the others. As a result, tonight’s results show could see three couples dancing for their life who the judges really enjoyed, and who showed more potential than the others involved.

I’m not suggesting this is unfair, or that it will be an injustice if one set of dancers go home instead of another – at the end of the day, it isn’t a travesty and I’m going to be able to recover. However, considering the lack of democracy early in this process, couldn’t Lythgoe introduce a scenario wherein the first performance episode is a showcase, giving each couple a chance to perform a dance in the style of their choice, and then perform solos the next night? It would allow America to meet them all individually as dancers, and as people, without the pressure of elimination and the power of the pre-performance coverage overwhelming actual dance quality.

As it is, SYTYCD is a subtle sort of democracy, where America isn’t fully in control until the Top 10. Considering this, adding an episode that improves the ability for the audience to engage in that democracy, to feel more attached to everyone earlier, and for the first elimination to feel somewhat more deserved and less unfair, seems like something to consider. Plus, being able to see people do two different styles of dance, one their own and one picked from a hat, gives us a sense of their adaptability before voting begins, as opposed to leaving it to the judges to have managed it.

If one of the two couples who struggled the most go home tonight, then this might not be necessary – however, considering how strong the performance shows are, is MORE of a good thing plus a bit of an uptick in audience awareness really a bad thing.

Just some food for thought before tonight’s results show.

[Edit: for the curious, the eliminated pair were hip hopper Tony (much loved for his charm during the audition phase, but who didn’t perform particularly well this week despite being in his wheelhouse) and contemporary dancer Paris (who pretty much got cut because they already have so many contemporary dancers, which is kind of unfair but also kept them from splitting up any couples). I think this is a fair elimination, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t think a showcase round would have helped even the field.]

Cultural Observations

  • Very happy to have Wade Robson back – having been predisposed with Criss Angel last year, he’s back and as weird as ever – his routines are almost an unfair advantage since everyone will remember them, and even if they didn’t like it chances are they won’t hold it against the dancers themselves, and might even vote for them for having to deal with the madness. Me personally, I’m totally on board – more wacko Wade, please.
  • Mary Murphy still makes me reach for the mute button faster than any other human being who appears on my television, but her little Botox joke was a rare moment of real, honest humour, immediately followed by her own disbelief that she was capable of being self-aware.
  • At this point, I’m not really rooting for anyone (I’m not quite that kind of fan), but there’s plenty of potential across the cast, so looking forward to seeing it develop as the summer goes on.

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