“Season Six – Top 20”
October 27th, 2009
The season started out with such promise: the Top 20 was touted as one of their best ever, and the network even gave them an hour of primetime to prove it last night when the dancers got to showcase their own personal styles in a series of group numbers. It made for a really engaging bit of television, a celebration of the individual dancers that Americans would be voting on.
However, as tonight’s performance show demonstrated, this season has very much been taken out of America’s hands, not in any substantial way but through a series of unfortunate circumstances. Just as viewers may have started falling in love with Billy Bell illness pulled him from the competition, and Noelle suffered a knee injury that seems likely to pull her from the competition considering the huge honkin’ brace she was sporting during tonight’s performance show. And to top it all off, with the World Series dominating Fox’s airwaves, America didn’t even get to vote for their favourites, meaning that two dancers were sent home without ever using their fingers to make numbers in front of millions of Americans.
It was an unfortunate turn of events because it takes a show that more than any other democratizes reality competition programming, emphasizing the America and Favourite in “America’s Favourite Dancer” with gusto, and turns it into a charade that this talented group of contestants doesn’t particularly deserve.
There was some enjoyable dancing tonight, but to be honest with you I don’t really remember much of it. I was too busy thinking about the things that had nothing to do with the dancers, the new elements the show had added to this season and the elements that seemed to happen TO the season in these opening episodes. There was no routine that seemed like it was capable of transcending the drama of it all, which is an unfortunate circumstance for all involved: I don’t think any of the choreographers phoned it in, with Travis, Sonja and Dave Scott perhaps putting together the most memorable routines for me overall, but it didn’t seem like any of them could break through amidst the turmoil going on in front of and behind the cameras.
First and foremost, I have to say that the two biggest changes to the show are a split for me. On the one hand, I despite the new studio setup, an awkward structure that features a giant video screen more distracting than atmospheric (except for in one routine tonight, which used it to silhouette a jazz band to great effect) and which has a very strange use of space. The show, before, felt like an almost cavernous environment which implied an open-theatre type setup where fans surrounded the stage. This stage might have a more complex lighting setup, but there is something about it that feels closed in. Not only that, but the way the audience is structured means that there is a gap between the seats (where the judges are situated) and the “crowd” in front of the stage, which created awkward camera angles where you see a large empty space where there should be people or, at the very least, something. I can understand it if the changes really seemed like they were adding to the show, but right now the small size led to awkward moments like Cat standing on the stage in plain sight while one of the final solos was being completed, which to me is something that they could have designed around. I’m not sure if the move is budgetary (perhaps moving into a smaller studio space and using the same equipment they built for the Nokia Theatre finale in the summer) or stylistic, but it’s unpleasant either way.
I have more positive things to say, however, about Adam Shankman’s arrival as a permanent third judge. Again, there’s a few theories about why they made this choice, and until we see how often they fill a fourth chair it’s going to be tough to really know. Whether it was a lack of availability of guest judges (which seems unlikely since all of the choreographers were in attendance) or something else, Shankman is the right choice: he’s capable of hamming it up with Mary, cracking witty one-liners, and perhaps most importantly offering a wide range of constructive criticism. While Lil’ C was too wordy, and Mia picked favourites, and Debbie Allen was fun if a bit too motherly, Shankman is able to offer funny comments that double as critical analysis. His comments to Bianca did nothing to diminish her performance, but simultaneously told her what she could improve and taught us some of the things to look for in a tap dancer trying to take on contemporary. I’ve always thought Shankman was amongst the more enjoyable of the show’s judges, and it makes sense (if they’re going for stability) for someone who doesn’t choreograph for the show to take that spot and provide a third, non-biased perspective on each week’s dances.
But while I was focusing on all of this, there was dancing happening, and unfortunately for the show none of it really matters. Yes, Duncan ended up being sent home, but considering he has only been in the competition for a day and a half it isn’t exactly surprising that they would choose to cut him, especially since they hadn’t wanted him in the competition anyways (to put it bluntly). He appears to have been chosen for his proximity to southern California and his previous relationship with Pauline (who he paired with during Vegas week), but in the end he was a hip hop dancer with a day and a half to learn the smooth waltz. I didn’t think he was quite as bad as the judges made him out to be, but he simply drew the wrong dance for a last-second fill-in. As a result, he heads home hoping that Fox will let him break the rules next year, should he improve enough to make it to the Top 20. It’s hard, though, for the audience to really feel for someone who they had no hand in sending home, and who was there for such a short period of time – the emotion is only pity, not empathy, and that hurts its emotional impact.
The same goes for Ariana, who we spent more time with but who isn’t likely to actually go home. Noelle’s knee injury is serious enough that an MRI is required to discern its severity, which implies to me that she will not be dancing soon enough for her to continue in the competition. If this is the case, chances are Ariana will be coming back soon thereafter, making her exit a bit tenuous. I thought she acquitted herself fairly well with one of Tabitha and Napolean’s non-lyrical hip-hop routines (one of their better ones out of the boring side of their oeuvre), but the judges singled her out for not quite stepping up to the routine. It all happened so fast, though, and more importantly it could be reversed just as quickly. There is every chance that this week will have eliminated an injured contestant who we’ve only seen dance in a group number and someone who was filling in for an injured contestant, which never got to sink in due to the show’s accelerated schedule. You’ll notice that very little of that sentence had to do with dancing, which is part of where the season is off to a rocky start.
It’s not, of course, off to a bad one: there seems to be some fun personalities in the Top 20, the new judges’ dynamic proved pretty entertaining (with even Mary getting into the concise critical mood a few times, albeit resorting to screaming on a number of occasions), and for all of my concerns about the stage and the drama it’s nice to see the show back in competition mode where it really shines.
- Russell showing up in the Bottom Two seemed like a calculated effort to give him more screentime, as the judges praised him profusely despite his disadvantage of not being able to build chemistry with a single partner. They love having a krumper on the show, and they just want him to stick around a bit longer.
- Speaking of Russell, it was interesting to see Melanie take to the stage as his partner, being as elegant and graceful as one would expect. What was interesting is that not all choreographers could do the same, so they would likely have had to bring in someone else (one of the practice dancers, perhaps) to do the job. It’s an interesting scenario, that’s to be sure – boring this season has certainly not been.
- The teaming of Nathan and Mollee had been predicted before the season began, primarily because (as Shankman put it) they are definitively adorable. Whether their disco number had anything going for it beyond enthusiasm and tricks is largely irrelevant given how valuable those two skills are to their future fans, and only time will tell if they’ve got the technical chops to go with their energy.
- Nigel saving a seat for Paula Abdul is going to get very old, very quickly, so I demand that he instead start saving a seat for MC Skat Kat.