December 15th, 2009
When FOX announced that So You Think You Can Dance would be returning mere weeks after its fifth season concluded for a fall season, designed to help bridge the programming gap that always plagues the network before American Idol arrives in January, I was moderately excited. At the end of a season, a show like SYTYCD is at the height of its excitement, and the idea of that excitement returning sooner than you expected seems a great one…at the time.
And then you realize that the Fall is not the same as the Summer, and more importantly that Season Six is not the same as Season Five. Nigel Lythgoe was in the unfortunate position wherein the show was changing seasons at the same time as they made a number of changes to the show’s formula (both aesthetic and organizational) which have severely weakened the series’ appeal. So just as I found myself feeling like I didn’t have time to follow along with these dancers and their journey, the show was giving me even more reasons to disengage, even more reasons to feel as if the show was losing its appeal.
It’s a perfect storm of problems that have made Season Six the unquestionable black sheep of the So You Think You Can Dance legacy, and righting the ship in Season Seven is going to be an interesting task in discerning which problems were caused by the change in season and which were mistakes irregardless of the colour of the leaves.
So You Think You Can Dance is a reality show that values growth, seeing dancers grow week over week and feeling as if you have some part in their growth. Last season, Jeanine’s surprise victory wasn’t a surprise to the people who voted for her, people who saw how she was growing week after week and eventually delivered a downright stunning performance in the finale to secure her victory. The show loves to mention how it chooses America’s “Favourite” Dancer as opposed to its best, and while Brandon was a great dancer and Kayla was a stunning technical talent there was no question that Jeanine had the journey the audience liked best.
But that journey has been cut off in Season Six, primarily due to scheduling conflicts with FOX’s broadcast of baseball’s World Series. The early rounds did not involve America at all, the voters turned into spectators as the first two rounds were like another set of Las Vegas auditions as the judges chose not only who went home but also who would appear in the Bottom Three (giving the audience no chance to save their favourites). And because the show wants to avoid airing on December 23rd, it is ending a week early, which means that the dancers are missing out on one week of performances, and that voters will have to choose between six dancers in the finale. It all feels enormously rushed: the Top 10 appeared so suddenly that it had no real meaning (especially with no talk of a once a year tour to buoy people), and only two weeks removed from that event the finale feels as if it has absolutely no momentum.
And it doesn’t help that changes unrelated to scheduling have contributed negatively to the season’s impact. The new stage has been a colossal failure, providing the production team with a few new camera angles but robbing the audience at home and in the studio of the sense of scale that the old set had. That old stage looked enormous, which made dances which used the entire stage feel larger while drawing even more attention to those dances (like “The Bench”) which used only a small part of the stage. The new stage relies on gimmicks with its enormous screen, which has been used effectively perhaps once or twice all season, and while some choreographers (Wade Robson, for one) have tried using the new setup to their advantage there just hasn’t been anything that has so blown me away that the stage’s claustrophobic qualities can be undone – an ominous walk from beneath the stage and out from under the screen is not worth the overall unpleasantness.
These elements have tainted what could, with better circumstances, have been a fine season. Jakob is one of the best dancers the show has ever seen, Kathryn is in the process of really coming into her own late in the competition, and I was pleasantly surprised by Mollee’s resurgence this past week. But yet these three stories were trapped in a season not built to contain them: Jakob, who unquestionably deserves to win the competition performance wise, will be up against five other dancers instead of three, Kathryn peaked perhaps a week too early and might crack under the pressure, and Mollee was eliminated largely because Ashleigh’s injured plea (and her husband’s tearful one) was one of the only emotional beats that the show felt as if it had time for. In a different season, Mollee coming into her own and Jakob’s talent and Kathryn’s breakthrough might have had meaning – instead, there’s this sense that it’s almost irrelevant.
Perhaps the worst thing about the season is that one of the elements which has actually been a substantial improvement, the introduction of Adam Shankman as the full-time third judge, has been contaminated by the season’s struggles. I like Shankman as a judge, always willing to criticize a dance even when he loved it, and always managing to balance humour and excitement with a focus on how to improve and what more could be done next time. However, having the same three judges throughout the competition has contributed to this sense that we’re spectators in an audition process. The judges started the season as dictatorial executioners, and Nigel’s tense interactions with Nathan didn’t help make the judges seem any less authoritative. The judges are there to help us understand what we’re seeing, but because of how rushed the season has been the value of their consistency has been overwhelmed by their inflated power and the “rush to the finish line” mentality that has this all feeling like an extension of the auditions more than something staged for our benefit.
The season has not been a fundamental waste of time, as we’ve met some new choreographers and there have been some memorable routines. However, I fear that none of those choreographers and none of those dances will live beyond the season, as there is something about everything in Season Six which just feels unmemorable. And while the eventual winner’s cheque will be worth the same as any other year when it’s given out tomorrow night, there is something about this season that just doesn’t add up. And yet, since FOX achieved their goal of year-round domination with the show’s help, boosting its lineup enough to give it a fall demographics victory to go with American Idol’s spring dominance, this could probably be considered a success, even with Lythgoe says he’ll never do two seasons a year again.
But it’s created cracks in the armour of what was once a reality show that clearly understood its own appeal, and next summer we’ll see the degree to which Lythgoe understands what went wrong this season.
- I have, nonetheless, watched most of the season, and can’t imagine anyone but Jakob winning – he’s likeable, he’s never made a wrong step, and no one can match him technically.
- The only competition is Russell, who has been both helped and hurt by the scheduling. On the one hand, he is the show’s only real underdog, so his story is one of the few to have really developed. However, he also hasn’t had a lot of time to show off that underdog scrappiness (which did in Legacy, who I preferred), so it might not have the impact it would have had in a different season.
- This week’s “Remixes” gimmick was so underdeveloped that it was almost embarrassing, but it was good to see that Ronson bothered to come to the show itself like a good sport.