All-Stars, No Story: Confusion reigns over So You Think You Can Dance Season 7

All-Stars, No Story: SYTYCD Season 7

June 16th, 2010

When it was announced that So You Think You Can Dance would be changing its structure for its seventh season, in theory there shouldn’t be any complaints: after all, many of the show’s fans were frustrated by the sixth season, where the series felt stale for the first time. However, that staleness wasn’t really the result of the show’s structure so much as the decision to schedule the series in the fall (only weeks after the fifth season ended) and an unfortunate new stage which sucked some of the life out of the series. We were suffering from fatigue more than anything else, and while some small changes could bring us back to the franchise it seems as if Nigel Lythgoe decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

While we’ve known for a while that the series was throwing out its Top 20 structure and going with a Top 10 (in fact a Top 11) and teaming up the individual competitors with All-Stars from previous seasons, it wasn’t entirely clear just how that would work. The show is still a collection of 11 dance routines as it was before, but there are newfound conflicts in who we’re supposed to be paying attention to (the competitor or the All-Stars), and with Mia Michaels sitting in for Mary Murphy there is simply something different in the air.

And it’s proving to be, at least right now, a diversion from what used to make the show so engaging – while my choice of title may make it seem like the problem is that the show is focusing too much on the All-Stars (I couldn’t resist the play on No Guts, No Glory), the truth is that they didn’t focus on the all-stars at all, which is even more distracting and confusing for audiences and judges alike.

I’d argue that the changes on So You Think You Can Dance are the most substantial changes which have taken place to a competition reality series since the genre broke out a decade ago. While there have been additions to various formulas (adding Exile Island to Survivor, as an example), there has never been a circumstance where the way the series gets from Point A to Point B has been so substantially changed. While this is still a dance competition where they’re searching for America’s favourite dancer, and it still has the delightful Cat Deeley being as charming as ever, how the show gets from its auditions to its finale has become a completely different ballgame, whether the show is willing to admit it or not.

What fascinates me about the decision to bring in the All-Stars is that they are being treated as entirely irrelevant to criticism by the way the show is being edited and structured: they are given almost no time in the rehearsal footage, and are ushered offstage immediately after the performance is over (a few times I sort of wanted to hear what they had to say, like Twitch on his door/window experiences, but they were not allowed to speak). However, these are people that we’ve spent time with in the past, so it’s not as if we can just pretend they’re not there: we’re not going to be able to ignore Mark in a Sonya Tayeh jazz routine, so for him to be a “non-entity” is an ideal that the show won’t actually be able to achieve. The show has always had to split our interest three ways (each individual dancer and the choreographer), but now they’re asking us to ignore one of the dancers on the stage, which is perhaps even more difficult than differentiating between them.

It creates some confusing critiques from the judges. For example, Adechike was paired with Kathryn (one of the highlights from the sixth season) for a Travis Wall jazz routine, and the judges were torn: they loved the routine (which was fun) and they loved Kathryn (who was radiant), but they felt that Adechike was just sort of “there.” This wouldn’t be a problem in any other season, when it would simply be an imbalance between partners, but now the show isn’t really capable of taking that imbalance into account: because the All-Star is above criticism (presumed to have been an excellent partner), and because the show would never dare criticize one of its most prominent alums (Wall) for choreographing a routine which wrongly showcases the All-Star over the contestant, Adechike is left to bear the brunt of their frustration. And let’s raise the question: should the choreographers be creating routines to highlight the contestants over the All-Stars? I’d normally say no, as it would limit their creativity, but is the show really about showcasing the choreographer or the competitors? The show has always had that tension, like when Sonya Tayeh’s contemporary piece won over the judges with its emotion and left Alex’s solid performance largely secondary to the routine, but now it seems much more apparent within each individual critique (including those where there wasn’t the overwhelming response to the choreography that there was in the hyperbolic response to Tayeh’s piece).

While you would expect for the critiques to be more focused, in that only one person will be given comments, it’s not as if the dance is any less complex in terms of the people involved, so the judges are all over the map in terms of how each individual is graded. It doesn’t help that Mia Michaels has taken over for Mary Murphy, a comment I make less because I miss Murphy (the lack of her screeching is the one change I’m fully on board with) and more because it’s one more new variable. Michaels, used to coming in as a guest judge and after taking a season off, struggled to find her rhythm early in the episode, oscillating between some keen observations and an effusive “but we love you” rhetoric that seems too similar to Shankman’s point of view. While Murphy was never quite the panel’s Paula Abdul, she was at the very least a different type of judge than the others: the current set of judges are so similar that they were even similarly confusing in their comments (as it related to the contestant/all-star/choreography combination), which only reinforced the potential issues within this structure.

And chief amongst those issues is that the format gives an advantage to those who have already been well-established in the season’s narrative. Kent Boyd, who is one of the most endearing contestants this show has ever had, feels perfectly suited for the newfound focus on the individual, as we have so internalized his personality and his desire to succeed that we spend very little time watching Anya in their routine as opposed to monitoring his progress. However, a contestant like Ashley (who I don’t remember from the audition rounds at all) ends up feeling like a young amateur caught up in a Tyce Diorio routine with Neil Haskell; while I understand the series’ interest in underdog narratives, of contestants rising above the hierarchy of all-star and not all-star to become an equal to their competitor, so much of that depends on personality within this model that some contestants simply won’t be able to do it.

It doesn’t help that one of the chief qualities which would endear contestants to audiences, chemistry with their partner, has now been lost from the series: while Nigel criticized a few contestants early on for a lack of chemistry, I don’t know if this is particularly fair. At a certain point, Adam Shankman tried to sell this as a benefit, that the sense of confidence gained from having an All-Star as a partner allows the dancers to truly explore their full potential, and this might be true. However, so much of a layperson’s experience with the show is about seeing the dancers form relationships with one another: viewers were often heartbroken when the original pairs were split up at the Top 10, and when the series switched to individuals it relied on the time we spent watching them grow ahead of time. Now, we have only the auditions and a single performance to go on, and many of the individuals got lost within that performance thanks to the confusion inherent in the structure switch.

What’s funny, however, is that I think the structure works if you pull a random person off the street and ask them to start watching the show: I thought Alex stood out in his routine with Allison primarily because I didn’t watch the second season of the series, so I have no preconceived notion of who Allison was or how good she was supposed to be. If someone knew nothing about the All-Stars (and it’s not like the show is spending any time with them), I think they’d be able to buy Shankman’s argument that their professionalism pushes the contestants to do better, and they’d be focused more carefully on the dancer in question. However, I still think Kathryn would have outshone Adechike, and I still think Ashley would have seemed lost, and I still think that any positive benefits of this structure remain purely in the theoretical realm and failed to materialize on the (improved, thanks to the lack of a giant video screen) stage.

As the season goes on, there’s a chance that some of this will change: without 11 contestants to go through, there’s a good chance that we’ll be seeing more of the rehearsal footage and perhaps hearing more from the All-Stars, so this is going to be something that evolves throughout the season. However, I think some of the early eliminations will have been victims of this structure, although I think Lythgoe would argue that this is only fair: I’d suspect that the people who will go early are the same who would benefit from developing strong chemistry with their partner or having a superior partner, and perhaps this is now a more objective competition without that factor playing a role. However, at least then it seems like contestants have a chance to grow: while this may be the more competitive environment for strong dancing, it doesn’t seem like an environment where dancers will be able to form a strong relationship with the audience if they haven’t already, which takes away part of the series’ charm.

The dancing remains impressive, and I think this structure is going to make for some really fantastic television in about six weeks’ time. Until then, however, it feels like the sense of play has been taken out of the equation and replaced with a training camp vibe that just isn’t connecting with me in the way the show usually does, which is an unfortunate turn of events that could perhaps stand as a warning to any other reality producers looking to shake things up in the future.

Cultural Observations

  • This isn’t new, as the show has done it numerous times in the past, but the idea of painting hip hop dancers without any formal training as underdogs is getting a bit old. It’s not as if they literally pulled Jose off the streets and asked him to dance choreography: he got through Hollywood week, which means he was able to pick things up quickly and had obviously taken some classes to round out his technique. In fact, one of the problems of having the all-stars present is that it reminds us that the show tends to peddle in archetypes, and so Jose becomes less unique by comparison (as Dominic, another breaker who had to learn choreography on the show but was absent in tonight’s episode, had the same story).
  • The show promoted having a new director in last week’s performance showcase, but it seems like the same problems from last season in terms of handling the new stage setup are lingering. I like the stage better without the giant screen, but the camera angles end up failing on any occasion where the dancers are a distance apart from one another, a problem that will perhaps go away as the new director has time to get her legs under her.
  • Also, while I was watching in HD, Erika noted on Twitter that she wasn’t, and that it seemed like the camera work was very clearly designed to be watched in the wider aspect ratio. That would be unfortunate if true, but likely won’t be changed since they had enough problems with even the wider lens as it was.
  • Interesting to note that the show, which has always relied on a limited form of democracy for the first half of its competition, is keeping that designation even with less people involved. America likely won’t have complete control until the Top 5, which indicates that the series has become less democratic – whether this will contribute to the loss of personality which stems from the All-Stars conceit is yet unclear, but it’s certainly possible.
  • Also, I think the “hat” is officially dead: even though it would have been actually really interesting to see how each contestant reacted to picking a particular All-Star out of the hat, it was cut. This could be because they didn’t have time to show that footage, or it could be that the hat is as much of a crock as we imagine it to be (see: Jose picking Hip Hop).
  • I think I went into this episode with a bit too much of a critical eye to really focus on enjoying the dancers (another problem with shaking up the structure quite this much), but Kent was the one contestant who transcended that – the chances of him not winning this competition dwindle with each week where he quests to be as gosh-darn adorable as a human being can possibly be, and it feels so natural and spontaneous that there’s little concern of it becoming a liability in the future (as it did for Evan, who started off in “aw shucks” mode and ended up in “aw, sucks” mode. Yeah, I said it).
  • In the spirit of The Amazing Race and Alias before it, it seems like the SYTYCD theme song has added some new percussion – it’s a’ight.
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4 Comments

Filed under So You Think You Can Dance

4 responses to “All-Stars, No Story: Confusion reigns over So You Think You Can Dance Season 7

  1. My biggest problem with the new format is the aspect you mentioned about losing chemistry with their partner. Having a great partner you connect with can bring you a long way in the show: think of Ashleigh last season. Without Jakob and their amazing dancing chemistry, would she have made it as far as she did? Doubtful. And I’m going to miss that.

    The first 1/2 of my episode was in standard definition, then the feed switched to HD. The show looked terrible in SD, almost unwatchable.

  2. I think you’re spot-on in your analysis of the problems the new format creates for the show’s narrative drive, pseudo-democratic voting system, and critiques. It was so painfully awkward to me as a viewer when the All-Stars were shooed offstage (even if Cat did it as sweetly as she possibly could) after the performance. Whether or not they’re supposed to be the stars of this season, they -are- involved in the dance, and I think it’s vital that they be there for the critique so they don’t seem like living props. I also think the show needs to not be afraid to critique the all-stars if they’re part of the reason the dance didn’t work. In this episode, I can buy that some of the chemistry won’t be there, but in the coming weeks I don’t think I’ll be able to swallow that as easily — I remember the all stars during their respective seasons, and I can remember routines where they struggled with chemistry, too. By removing the all-stars almost entirely from the critique, there’s a lot of pressure on the new dancers to deliver everything the choreographer is trying to convey.

    It’s interesting — Nigel has made a point for so many seasons of saying that the winner of ‘SYTYCD’ is not necessarily the best dancer, but “America’s Favorite Dancer,” a title which sort of inherently privileges the dancer who has the best narrative over dancers who may be more talented or technically proficient (i.e. Russell beating Jakob and Ellinore last season). These changes (and, come to think of it, the change in the phone numbers to include the word “best”) seem to be Nigel’s way of changing the focus of the competition to getting America to recognize the -best- dancer amongst the contestants. But as you point out in your discussions of Kent and Jose, the judges are still talking about the dancers and the dances in terms of narrative, and the new format is too disjointed to really create narrative.

  3. Pingback: When SYTYCD Art Meets SYTYCD Structure: Stacey Tookey’s Carefully Designed “Mad World” « Cultural Learnings

  4. Dodie Mathews

    My problems with this season are stacking up, but I will continue to be a loyal viewer until the series ends. The show is not the same without our Mrs. Murphy. I love Mia, I think she is an amazing choreographer, but I think she is preferential in the contestants. She’s extremely harsh in some of her criticisms. She about ripped Adechike and new one, and he looked like he was going to cry, but remained courageous and took the criticism. I know she apologized for it, but later on she goes back to being a little too harsh again as the weeks have transpired. I loved Jose, he was such a charismatic contestant, his dance with Lauren (all star) gave me goosebumps. They tripped on him when the choreographer made him do a piece on the edge of the stage, like it was his fault that his dance didn’t follow through. He was doing what he was told. I think that Kent is adorable, but I don’t believe he’s the best dancer, I absolutely adore Lauren, her Tahitian dance was phenomenal, she’s a little cutie.

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