Look, on paper, “So You Think You Can Dance” shouldn’t work. It’s a reality competition show on Fox produced by the same folks who bring us that harbinger of the cultural apocalypse, “American Idol.” For those that think I’m waxing hyperbolic, let’s look at the facts. When “American Idol” premiered in 2002 Lindsay Lohan was shooting “Freaky Friday,” Britney Spears was not a girl yet certainly not a woman who parades through public bathrooms barefoot, marries a back up dancer, pops out two kids, divorces and publicly goes batshit insane with the head shaving and the umbrella jousting, and Paris Hilton was still a relatively unknown vapid hotel heiress who’d yet to show the intertubes her twat. Simpler times. Then “American Idol” came along, with it’s music for people who don’t like music, cues taken from a bunch of tweeners, and shoved modestly talented, derivative pop/country/rock slop down our cultural throats. (And yeah, yeah, sure, David Cook is a star. A dude with two left feet would seem graceful in a roomful of folks with no toes.) But what I find most offensive about “American Idol” isn’t the shitty music, it’s the way the show revels in cynicism and schadenfreude. Sure, everyone’s all smilestimes when the confetti drops on the finale but how’s about all those souls stomped upon along the way? All the laughter aimed at tone deaf, delusional shut ins who get to have their dreams crushed on national television by some Limey cocksucker rather than die slow, quiet deaths behind the counter at a burger barn. And while there’s an argument to be made for ripping the band aid off quickly as having done the poor sucker a favor, I’m more concerned that there are 20 million plus who find entertainment in watching dreams die. Now, I recognize taking a shot at cynicism ‘round these parts is a bit like slagging Marvel at ComicCon but this review will read like a grown up in a Peanuts cartoon to the cynics so I might as well run you all off now.
“So You Think You Can Dance,” or as I prefer to refer to it, “So You Think You Can Dance Dance Revolution,” (“The Revolution” for short) is the cure for the poison that “American Idol” has been injecting into our cultural candy. I posit that if SYTYCDDR’s ratings reach the height of AI’s in it’s heyday, not only will a sober and lucid Britney get her tubes tied after retiring from public life to raise her babies, but Lohan will win an Oscar for a performance which all Pajiba-ites will have lauded and Paris Hilton will be so broke she’ll have to go on “American Gladiator — Celebrity Edition” where she will be ruthlessly drawn and quartered then sodomized with her own limbs and no one will watch. I think that’s a world in which we’d all like to live.
In all seriousness, “The Revolution” is a marvel. The show’s got a great vibe due to a real sense of empathy and respect among everyone involved. Every single contestant, judge and choreographer positively, absolutely, from the pit of their guts loves to dance. It’s clear in the way they do their jobs and the way they treat each other. It makes it easier to ignore the inevitable missteps and unfortunate reality show clichés (of which there are plenty).
Unfortunately, the show owes much of it’s early structure to “Idol.” While they had the good sense Season One to focus on the contestants who actually made it to the top 20 with a compelling workshop week that felt far more like a documentary on a dance school than a competitive reality show, the last two seasons they’ve fallen back on what they understand: The parade of delusion. Mercifully, there’s far less of these episodes than “Idol” and the judges are kinder. “Vegas Week” is a split the difference sort of situation. It lacks the intimacy of Season One’s workshops but does a fine job focusing on good dancing. A classic moment from last season, Mia Michaels, my favorite choreographer on the show, teaches a piece to the remaining dancers. Her shit is crazy hard. Everyone’s panting and grimacing and looking lost and she roars in her most tough love tone “Don’t be such needy dancers.” She’s a beast.
“The Revolution” really begins with the Top 20. Ten guys, Ten girls. The judges/producers do their best to balance out the styles and strengths, a couple of B-boys, an occasional B-girl, hip hop, contemporary, ballet and ballroom dancers. All of them are wicked talented at what they do. Some are more versatile than others. They’re paired up, given a style (usually not their own) and three days to rehearse. Those with the least votes each week have to “dance for their lives” (hands down my least favorite trope of the show and one that will sadly never die). Then, until we’re down to the top 10, the judges decide who goes home. This mitigates the popularity contest that’s inevitable on this sort of competition. It also guaranteesthat great dancers who lack TV-ready personality and/or are just total odd ducks, get a chance to stick around and win over the masses.
There are two permanent judges, Nigel Lythgoe, producer of “AI” and “SYTYCD,” and Mary Murphy, former Ballroom champion and current dance studio proprietor. Mary has so much working against her: a nasal, grating laugh, a propensity to scream in a loud and sustained fashion to prove how much she loved a piece, and a deeply awkward and clichéd rhetorical style. To wit: “It don’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows and the wind is blowing you to the finale (insert piercing sustained scream here)!” But when she sticks to what she knows, ballroom technique, she proves very educational. And like all the judges, she loves and roots for the dancers.Nigel is decidedly less offensive. He’s articulate and specific on his likes and dislikes and on occasion will bust out a thoughtful monologue on the growth of an artist through the process of the show. The third judge is usually one of the choreographers the kids have been working with throughout or a fancy guest judge. Mia Michaels is unabashedly hippy dippy in her demands on the dancers. She expects the world out of them, not just technically, but emotionally. I get flashbacks to theater school every time she talks. Ms. Debbie “Fame, I Wanna Live Forever” Allen pops up on occasion, much to my delight. Then there’s hacktastic Dan “Man With No Plan” Karaty whose presence at the judges’ table at least means we’re spared from his lame, white-boy Hip Pop choreography. I’m told last seasons blight will be returning, Hairspray (the movie) choreographer and giant explosion of Queen, Adam Shankman. I can’t stand the guy. He makes it all about him AND he’s a hack. At least Karaty cares about the kids. Shankman is Corky Sinclair plus a lucky break, minus the humor. Bad news bears whenever he’s on the TV.
But the judges (or jidges as Cat Deeley insists on calling them, more on her in a minute) are just there to keep the ship straight. The genius of “The Revolution” lies in the contestants and their subtly crafted story arcs. Nigel and Co recognized that there is an inherent drama and a compelling narrative in the growth of a young artist and he figured out how to package it for TV in a way that’s respectful of the art form and the participants. It’s far from perfect but it’s more often than not soulful. Soulful reality TV. Seriously. I am not making this up.
Now, that’s not to say that it’s all Ailey all the time. You usually get three or four Disco routines a season and they almost always blow. They’ve yet to do a Broadway number I’ve enjoyed. It’s all yawn inducing Fosse rip-offs and three day-old cotton candy choreography. Then again, that’s pretty much all actual Broadway is these days so, I guess they’re right on. But on the other end of the spectrum you have choreographers like Mia Michaels and Wade Robson who continually push the boundaries of what one would think possible on a show like this. Both of them work commercially, Mia did Celine Dion’s big Vegas show and Wade’s best known for choreographing for (and sleeping with) Britney Spears. You’d think they’d come on a show like this and throw up some music video, schlocky claptrap but no … It’s like Nigel told them, “Seriously, do what ever the fuck you want. For reals…” So you end up with shit like this from Mia:
And this from Wade:
The dude in Wade’s piece is Hok, a B-Boy more comfortable spinning on his head than dancing in a modern ballet piece. The judges love nothing more than a diamond in the rough arc. A B-boy or B-girl who comes in with little to no technical training and kicks ass on a Ballroom or Contemporary piece. Get a load of Sara, the B-girl who’d never worn heels before coming on the show, let alone danced in ‘em:
These arcs have great potential for transcendent moments. Like Hok as the hummingbird in Wade’s piece above or Dominic, the class clown breaker who went from this:
One of my all time favorite contestants, Cedric Gardner, had never taken a class in his life. He taught himself to dance from TV and developed his style by imitating cartoons. Seriously. He tried out on a whim and was so fucking insane at what he did, despite not being able to handle any other styles, they put him through all the way to the top 20. The voting public naturally put him in the bottom three. He had a hard time picking up choreography and was a hot mess at everything he tried. But his solo kept saving him. I mean… Just look at him:
He’s from another planet. So it gets to the point where the judges say, “This is it, this is the last time we’re saving you. Stronger dancers are leaving in your stead you have to show us something more.” So the next week, he draws Mia Michaels out of the hat (I will never believe the shit’s random) and she choreographs this heartfelt, soulful goodbye. He struggled with it so much that she ends up sitting him upstage on the stairs while his partner, Shauna, leaps and turns in front of him. But watching him sit there, knowing he can’t keep up, all the while remaining fearless and 150 percent committed in the way he attacks every beat he’s given … Hells bells, I get choked up every time I watch it:
Aside from guest judge Debbie Allen’s hallelujah, “Mia Michaels you delivered these children!” The judges were less than kind, telling Cedric they wanted him gone. He then delivered an impassioned speech about what an amazing experience he’d had, how much he loves to dance and how he’s excited to study and learn and grow. Then Ms. Debbie Allen offers him a full scholarship to her Dance Academy (which is no joke) and Cedric nearly explodes with gratitude. So how does voting go down? Much to everyone’s shock, Cedric and the lovely Shauna were safe. It took a mambo to send him home. It’s stories like Cedric’s that keep me positively bonkers for this show.
There are more subtle and triumphant arcs, like Neil who started out a seemingly soulless trickster who’s only asset was that he could jump really high:
No way he makes it to the end, right? This solo put him through to the finale:
I’d be remiss if I ended this review with out some love for Cat Deeley, the leggy, blond, perpetually bubbly host. Her genuine affection for the contestants (and theirs for her) is palpable. And the outfits, oh sweet lord the outfits.
There were moments that I doubted her sincerity, no one can love their job as the host of a reality TV dance competition THAT much, can they? But towards the end of last season, I went to a live taping and let me tell you, that woman is an angel and a vision. If she’s acting, that’s some serious method shit. Didn’t matter whether the cameras were on or off, she had rainbows and sunbeams shooting from all the appropriate orifices. She chatted with the dancers, comforted them if they were on the chopping block and was just generally lovely to everyone. I adore her. She’s delightful.
“So You Think You Can Dance” Season four premieres this Thursday but “The Revolution,” as I know and love it, doesn’t start till June 11th when we’ll have our first Top 20 performance show. I hope everyone will give it a shot. It’ll melt a cynics heart, good and proper. Besides, Britney’s babies are counting on you.
‘Beckylooo Who’ is an aspiring television writer, aka an assistant. She has a deep understanding of the importance of a pleasant phone manner and a well-stocked fridge. Further rantings and ravings can be found at If A TV Falls in the Woods.
"So You Think You Can Dance?" / Beckylooo Who
TV Reviews | May 22, 2008 | Comments ()