Thursday, June 02, 2005

Is America Ready For This?

Three new reality shows debuted tonight, two in the United States and one in Canada. Predictably I'm going to review the one which seems just slightly more innovative than the others - and also the one that I think will probably be the lowest rated, which in the summer of 2005 is saying a lot.

Every so often you come upon you come upon a train wreck. It may not have happened yet but you know it will. Dancing With The Stars is going to be a train wreck. I just don't know that the United States - or Canada for that matter - is ready for ballroom dancing on network TV, particularly when the dancing is done by people who have very little experience in ballroom dancing.

Ballroom dancing has achieved a new level of visibility recently. The 1996 Japanese movie Shall We Dansu? receive critical raves when it was eventually released in the United States, and was eventually remade last year as Shall We Dance? with Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez. ABC has describe Dancing With The Stars as an international sensation, and it is, although not always under that name. In Britain the series is known as Strictly Come Dancing and has featured UK media "stars" like comedian Julian Clary, David Dickinson (host of Bargain Hunt), and opera singer Leslie Garrett. The Australian version, also called Dancing With The Stars had veteran actor John Wood, Olympic Gold Medallist James Tomkins, and Home And Away Star Rebecca Cartwright, and there's a New Zealand version that's currently airing.

The show's format pairs a "star" with a professional ballroom dancer. Let's just say that some are more adept than others. In the US version of the show there are six teams (the British, Australian and New Zealand series had eight to ten). They are John O'Hurley (Seinfeld) with Charlote Jorgenson; four time Heavyweight Boxing champion Evander Holyfield with Edyta Sliwinska, Joey McIntyre (Boston Public and the band New Kids on the Block) with Ashley Delgrosso; Kelly Monaco (General Hospital) with Alec Mazo; supermodel Rachel Hunter with Jonathon Roberts; and reality star Trista (Rehn) Sutter (The Bachelor and Ryan & Trista Get Married) with Louis van Amstel.

The partners have had five weeks to work together to learn the various dance moves and to develop routines for each of 10 styles of dance. Following their training period the teams dance at a Los Angeles club in a live broadcast hosted by Tom Bergeron America's Funniest Home Videos. Here I think is part of the problem with the show. Instead of playing it straight, Bergeron decides to go for the cheap joke. Thus when talking about Rachel Hunter he mentions that even though shes a supermodel she "uses her powers for good." it's an old joke and it was a bad joke when it was new. I get the distinct feeling that Bergeron would rather be anywhere else. Fortunately Tom doesn't get to talk much, which is just as well because a little of him goes a long way. Then things go to the judges. The head judge is professional Ballroom Dancing Judge Len Goodman, who was also a judge on the British series Strictly Come Dancing and has been either dancing or judging dancing for most of his adult life. He's assisted by Hollywood choreographer Carol Ann Inaba, and Bruno Tonioli who was also on the British show and has worked with people like Elton John, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Kate Winslet and Tina Turner. They each rate the dancers from 1 to 10 (Bergeron: "Which means that the tops score is thirty"). Finally viewers get a chance to vote American Idol style by phone or on-line.

The dancing was variable, ranging from slightly better than high school prom quality to not quite ready to enter a real competition. Teams had the choice of the Waltz or the Cha Cha Cha, and while no one truly embarrassed themselves in terms of screwing up, but a couple of these people shouldn't be allowed on a dance floor unless they're the ones getting married. Evander Hollyfield gave a particularly poor performance, mainly standing in place moving his arms and occasionally his feet while his partner Edyta moved around him. Allegedly he was doing the Cha Cha Cha. The dance that Rachel Hunter and Jonathon Roberts were doing was allegedly the Waltz, but it looked to ballet like for my definition of the Waltz. The worst judges' assessment waited for Kelly Monaco who was described as looking too stiff, "as if someone had died." The best dancers may have been the teams Joey McIntyre and Ashley Delgrosso and John O'Hurley and Charlotte Jorgenson (although I at least was impressed with Trista and Louis).

There were few if any problems with the live broadcast. There were a couple of times when Bergeron tried to talk over the crowd and the crowd won, and one incident where a camera literally lost a pair of dancers in the flare from a footlight, but those sort of things can almost be expected in a first broadcast. The judges were relatively mild in their assessments of the teams. There are no Simons in this group: the meanest comment was when Len said of some team: "A garden needs a mix of lawn and flowers. You were all lawn." It says something however that I can't remember which team he said it of.

I can see the appeal of Dancing With The Stars. Ballroom Dancing is a beautiful thing and even sensual thing when you're doing it (the dancing generations of the '50s and '60s have a lot to answer for), and if there's a market for hours of figure skating in the winter, then there should be a market for this. The trouble is that I don't know what that market is, and whether they'll be watching in sufficient numbers to give this show the ratings it would need to survive. The problem isn't that the people are "B" or even "C" list celebrities - on the whole television doesn't attract "A" list celebs at the best of times and this show isn't going to make a breakthrough in that area (well Robert Duval might be interested - he's a major fan of ballroom dancing to the point where he taught Waltz classes on the set of Lonesome Dove) - and loathe though I am to say it, the problem isn't Bergeron. The reason I don't expect the show to succeed is simply that it doesn't have the excitement and fire of an American Idol or the dramatic tension of a Survivor or even a Hell's Kitchen. Worse, despite the success of Shall We Dance? I don't believe there's as much interest in Ballroom Dancing in North America as there is in Britain and Australia. All of which saddens me slightly because unlike a show like The WB's Beauty And The Geek which also debuted Wednesday night (and which I'll review tomorrow after it re-airs) it at least has the advantage of originality.

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