(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff takes a look at all three hours of TV's number one rated show, Dancing With The Stars. Next week, Noel Murray takes on the NFL.)
Dancing With The Stars is the number one show on television right now. In the past year, the only shows that have been able to compete with it to stand at the top of the ratings have been NCIS and American Idol, and Dancing's ability to flirt with controversy has often put it over the top, especially this fall. If there's a mass culture in the United States, still, then Dancing With The Stars has been a major part of it, along with such enjoyable treats as Avatar, Taylor Swift (the person, more than any of her songs), Katy Perry's "California Gurls," and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And yet what drives Dancing With The Stars is rarely the show itself; what gets the show in the media's spotlight is, more often than not, controversies that have nothing to do with the series and everything to do with all that's AROUND the series.
While there's always an attempt to, say, politicize American Idol (particularly in the year of the Kris Allen/Adam Lambert finals), that show usually lives and dies by the quality of the singers and judges. Dancing With The Stars exists as a dancing show, sure, and as a show about a collection of stars trying to find a second act in their "careers," sure, but the seasons of the show that are the most successful are the ones that can be pinned to some sort of additional narrative, like the year that girl who was dumped by the bachelor competed or that year when Emmitt Smith made an improbable run to the title. Dancing With The Stars is, for better or worse, the television equivalent of scanning the headlines on the magazines for sale in the checkout aisle at the supermarket. A little celebrity gossip, a little sports, maybe, and, hell, even some politics. By the time the finale rolls around, the dancing is almost an afterthought compared to everything else that's going on.
Never has that been more true than this year, after the show recruited Bristol Palin to join its roster of faded celebrities. When the season began, she was just one in a long list of curiosities to gawk at, and, indeed, much of the buzz about the show surrounded David Hasselhoff being involved. No one really gave Bristol (I'm going to use "Bristol" to refer to Palin, since her mom will also appear) much of a shot, particularly because, well, she was a flat-out awful dancer. Even in the finals, she's mostly on-rhythm, but her footwork is far from deft, and she moves like she's dancing in her sleep. Her movements lack any snap or spark, unlike her two finale competitors, Kyle Massey, who's not horribly technically proficient but sure exudes personality, and Jennifer Grey, who's pretty great at just about everything she tries. And yet Bristol rode a wave of support all the way to the finals, landing in last place in the judges' scores many, many times but managing to garner enough support from viewers at home to keep escaping by the skin of her teeth. (The blog Jezebel uncovered pretty convincing evidence of ballot-box stuffing, but all audience-decided reality shows allow for this kind of ballot-box stuffing, ultimately, so it's hard to say what this proves other than the kinds of people who would vote lots of times for Bristol Palin are really committed to doing so.)
And here's the thing: Until this week, I had never seen frame one of Dancing With The Stars. I'd seen ads for it. I knew what it was about (I mean, it's right there in the title). I had heard about previous seasons and had a general idea of who had performed well and what the "storylines" for the seasons were. But I'd never been as steeped in knowledge about what was going on on this show as I was this fall. And it's not like I seek out information about the series. It seeped out into the mainstream in a way that no show has since the glory days of American Idol, and it was doing so on the same wave of generalized Palin fascination that drives all other media coverage of former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin's family. Palin and the media have a symbiotic relationship that keeps both organizations alive. The media needs to mock her and feel vaguely fascinated by her, but she, too, needs the mockery. Without it, she ceases to exist, so borne up in ideas of cultural resentment is her entire persona. And somehow, into the midst of all of that, her single mother teenage daughter has become a new battleground.
When I assigned myself this story weeks ago, I was hoping to write about the show's ubiquity at the top of the Nielsen charts or what it looked like to someone who'd never seen it or something. Instead, Dancing With The Stars became The Bristol Palin Show, and writing about What It All Means became the thing to do, rather than writing about the dancing or the competition or even how bald, British judge Len Goodman referred to Kyle Massey's freestyle dance last night as a "boogaloo dance" (which probably isn't racist but sounds like it should be). Instead of the millions of "Who the hell IS Kyle Massey?" pieces the entertainment media industrial complex should have been cranking out, we've somehow become the latest to have to write about conservative vs. liberal, red vs. blue, regressive vs. progressive, traditional American values vs. hedonism, etc., etc., etc.
The entirety of this story is about turning Bristol Palin into a symbol of something beyond herself. The trick of politics is to go beyond a person and become a brand: Reagan is a great communicator, Clinton is a great empathizer, Obama is the great hope, etc. They're no longer people; they're symbols, and when they're revealed to be people, pushing for the best policies they can think of but still having to deal with a world full of compromise, disappointment sets in. (Some segments of the right wing only really forgave Reagan for raising taxes in his second term after he retired from public life and could be remade into a symbol again.) Thus, pushing Bristol to the win became a kind of symbolic act in advance of 2012 for a certain segment of her voting body. (I have to assume there were also some "vote for the worst" types pushing her, as well as some old people who thought she was trying really hard, like the voters who inevitably support any fresh-faced teenage boy who sings pop standards on Idol, but all evidence suggests the right-wing vote for Bristol was sizable.) Make Bristol Palin the victor of Dancing With The Stars, and she becomes the people's champion, part of a wave of common-sense Americans taking the country back from ... well, from Jennifer Grey, in this case, I guess. She's not herself; she's a symbol of the world as some would like it to be.
But, of course, none of this is the case. The 2012 election won't be determined by an online vote where voters can cast five votes per e-mail address. (If it did, 4Chan would rule us all.) Bristol's ascension to the finals doesn't suggest a wave of populist support behind her any more than Kyle Massey's support suggests Selena Gomez should run for the House when she's done with this whole Disney Channel star thing. And her ultimate third-place finish and loss to champion Jennifer Grey doesn't suggest anything beyond the fact that Grey beat everyone at pandering in Monday night's final performance show, by bringing up Patrick Swayze, dancing to a Dirty Dancing song, and starting out one number in a full-length gown that was ripped off to reveal something sexy underneath. Bristol wilted under the media spotlight; Grey turned it into an advantage. She was no longer the odds-on favorite; she was the underdog.
The funny thing about all of this is that Dancing With The Stars has probably succeeded because it IS such a conservative show. I don't mean that in a political sense, in the sense of the show being about eliminating the estate tax or banning abortion or anything; I mean that in the sense of the show being one that could easily have aired in 1950, exactly as is. Dancing With The Stars is utterly, utterly unobjectionable. Even the "sexy" dances are utterly devoid of anything like sex (though Grey gives it her all). Like Idol, the show is a throwback to the variety shows that used to rule the TV landscape. Unlike Idol, there's never a sense that anything like a real performance could break out. Dancing With The Stars is safe TV. It's TV where everybody knows exactly what to expect at any given moment, where host Tom Bergeron's quips are bland and inoffensive, where even fireball professional dancer (and Massey partner) Lacey Schwimmer is less an unpredictable spitfire (as she was on So You Think You Can Dance?) and more like the spunky granddaughter America's grandmothers chuckle over the exploits of. It takes place in some basic, conservative ideal of what entertainment SHOULD be, of what America could be like if we all just tried hard enough. (I read a lengthy blog post about how this season of Dancing With The Stars is the ultimate Middle American rebuke to liberal Hollywood values, which ... you KNOW where the show's produced, right?)
What's more, the show must be incredibly, incredibly cheap, making it essentially an endless money machine for ABC. The final prize (a giant mirror ball) is tacky, and while the production values are high, the show falls back on the same basic shot-setups and editing rhythms for just about everything that happens. What's more, every single song (so far as I could tell) is performed by the show's house singers and house band, which is an impressive group but probably costs far less than actually shelling out for the rights to the songs the dancers dance to. It's fun to watch Grey dance to "Do You Love Me?" again, but it loses some of the spark when the song sounds like it's being performed by a group of cruise ship entertainers. And as you watch all of this, it's impossible to not watch the live studio audience in the background, shadowed, but obviously filled with the elderly, who clap enthusiastically for EVERYthing. (Seriously, they clapped Monday night for Massey doing a little hop or something.)
Furthermore, like all reality shows, Dancing With The Stars feels no problems with killing time via endless, endless clips packages. Particularly in the two-hour results show, the show kept throwing to packages of the season's worst dances (most of which seemed to involve The Situation attempting to prove that one could stand rhythmically) or the former competitors (like the shoulda-been-the-winner Brandy) or the journeys of the three finalists. Granted, this is a gambit that nearly all reality shows break out at one time or another, but having not watched any of the rest of the season, the unnecessary nature of all of these clips became even more obvious. And, of course, the former competitors had to come back and dance. Florence Henderson and Margaret Cho looked like giant birds. The Situation came out of a cardboard box time machine that looked like it belonged in a fifth-grade class play, not the number one show on television.
One of the things I've realized in the process of this little experiment in watching top-rated shows (which will continue for at least a few more months) is that, yeah, a lot of top-rated shows are deeply mediocre, but all of the top-rated shows have one thing in common: They're disposable enough to completely ignore if you want but arresting enough to completely grasp and get drawn into if you happen to look up from your laundry folding or bill paying or laptop wrangling. Honestly, this maxim applies to even the good shows that get high ratings. You can appreciate Glee and Modern Family on a deeper level, if you want, or you can mostly ignore them and be moderately charmed when you look up to see what's going on. And this is a hard blend to get just right! Skew too far toward giving people entertainment they can drop in and out of, and people will eventually just drop out entirely. Skew too far toward giving people something that's interesting to watch and you demand their attention, which turns off plenty of people who'd rather turn off their brains at the end of the day. (You know I love you, Community. Don't look sad like that.)
I'm not giving Dancing With The Stars a very good grade, but I sort of admire it for the fact that I could wander off at a commercial break, come back a little late, and find myself instantly drawn into what was happening on screen. Dancing With The Stars doesn't aim high enough to be both consistently involving and eminently ignorable (the blend every hit show that's also good must somehow pull off), but there's something to it all the same. I can see why people get drawn into this show. It's safe TV to have on when you want to do something with your kids and don't want to risk them asking what the double entendres on Glee mean. It's TV you can have on while you talk with your spouse. It's TV you can get really involved in if you really want to, yet continue to do a crossword puzzle as you watch it. Everything about this show, from the judges to the hosts to the format, is as comfortable as a warm pair of socks. It is not GOOD TV, but it is WATCHABLE TV, and that's hard to do, much less turn into a media empire.
In the end, every moment of this show came down to Bristol, and even the producers were aware of it. They kept turning to her for reactions to the news stories swirling around her improbable rise. They kept making jokes about, say, the man who shot his TV after learning that she made it to the finals. (Bergeron seemed to take considerable delight in this story.) And why not? Because of Bristol, this is one of the shows of the moment, a show even a guy like me, who longs to not even think about it, ultimately has to hear a whole lot about. (To be fair to Bristol, in preparation for this article, I YouTubed all of her dances this season, and the judges' remarks in these episodes about how much she had improved over the course of the season were accurate, but she was still incredibly, incredibly bad in the finale, especially compared to the other two.) The show was probably wise to keep riding the Bristol train, to turn her into the symbol everybody who turned the show into our unlikeliest political debate wanted her to be.
But at the same time, she's none of that, just as the show isn't some sort of shadow vision of the future. TV has a tendency to flatten people out, to reduce complexity, but it can also provide hints of who those people really are, particularly in unguarded moments when the camera seems to be focusing on something else. And it's in these moments, when the hosts are talking to someone else, say, that we really get to know the "real" Bristol Palin, at least as much as we can on TV. As revealed by Dancing With The Stars, Bristol Palin is a little petulant and spoiled. She doesn't know a lot about pop music (look at how her face freezes when Brooke Burke asks everyone if they know the Pink song they dance to for the competition's final dance). She's a little shy. She's an awful dancer. She has an easy laugh, and she's the kind of girl everybody else in the competition can't help but take under their wing, even as they realize they're competing against her. When she gets third, relief floods across her face, an acceptance of how far this has gone and how close she got and how improbable it all is. I want to get to know that Bristol better because I think I'd like her. Instead, we get a concept, not a real person. She's someone who could never exist, a girl all dressed up in bright primary colors and made to plod around a dance floor gracelessly so that she can stand in for everything her voters want her (and the country) to be, not more firmly realize who she actually is.