Dance Moms debuts tonight on Lifetime at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Amid the endless hand-wringing over the societal effects of reality television, one critical issue always seems to get overlooked: what is it that actually makes reality TV, loathsome as it so often is, enjoyable to watch? Creating entertaining reality television is, if not exactly an art, then at least a very particular and demanding craft. There is nothing quite like a shoddily produced, sensationalistic and implicitly sexist reality show to make you appreciate all the well-produced, sensationalistic and implicitly sexist reality shows out there. I am sorry to report that the new Lifetime series Dance Moms is a prime example of the former.
Dance Moms follows the drama at Pittsburgh’s Abby Lee dance studio, run by the domineering Abby Martin. She’s a stout, loud-mouthed coach whose apparent mission in life is reducing second graders to tears on a daily basis while conforming to as many negative stereotypes as humanly possible. In the premiere episode, we meet her core group of dancers and their mothers, who run the typical reality-show gamut from venal to self-absorbed to kooky. One mother declares “I’m not here to make friends,” which may be a time-honored reality TV tradition, but nevertheless seems a tad belligerent given the context (a suburban Pennsylvania dance studio). Another makes vague threats to no one in particular (“Don’t push my buttons and we won’t have any altercations!”) while professing her love for Botox and Restylane. The show is crowded with cliches that don't need to be there.
Abby, of course, is a petty tyrant: she kicks one girl out of class for not wearing the right clothes, then calls the police when her mother objects; she berates another dancer for getting a French manicure before a competition (the white is distracting to the judges, apparently); and, most bizarrely, she lectures her dancers about onstage safety by asking, “What if she was at Radio City music hall and she did a side-aerial and she fell 13 stories and died?” What if, indeed. The first episode follows the troupe’s preparations for a West Coast Dance Explosion, a treacherous-sounding competition in Phoenix, Arizona; a win at “WCDE,” as the moms call it, will help pave the way for a berth at nationals. And, voila, we have a narrative arc for the season.
So, why should we give a hoot about this horrible Abby woman, her dancers and their mothers? Having watched the first episode, I can tell you that I honestly have no idea. While there is a riveting reality series to be made about the world of competitive girls’ dancing (tell me, who wouldn’t want to know more about this?) Dance Moms is not it. Which brings me back to my initial point about good-bad reality TV versus bad-bad reality TV. I am certain that Dance Moms was pitched as “Toddlers & Tiaras meets The Real Housewives,” but it falls woefully short even of those low benchmarks. Clearly, the producers of Dance Moms assumed that the superficial similarities to these other shows—narcissistic middle-aged women, tarted-up youngsters, catfights—would be enough to dupe audiences into submission, but they are not.
Watch enough reality television, as I most certainly do (you might say “too much,” but that’s a story for another day), and you come to expect—nay, demand!—a certain level of manipulation. You don’t tune into TLC or Bravo for fly-on-the-wall cinema. Rather, you want to be forced, via the magic of editing, into thinking that the subject of the show you are watching really is the world’s greatest pastry chef/maternity concierge/ice road trucker/whatever. Yet we’re told nothing about Abby’s reputation, except she’s a crazy bitch and, is like, renowned or something. The show doesn't even bother to inflate her resume, which is one time-honored reality tradition worth following.
Likewise, an effective reality show will make you care more than you thought possible about things you never even knew existed. “Who knew storage units could be so fascinating?” you’ll think to yourself after watching Storage Wars. Even the most sensationalistic reality show can have some anthropological value by providing a glimpse into a strange subculture; heck, even Jersey Shore started out that way. But Dance Moms fails to provide vital information about the milieu it depicts, meaning we don’t even really know what it is that we’re watching. Does Abby specialize in a certain type of dance? Are there, as in child beauty pageants, different styles of dance competitions? One mother claims she spends $16,000 a year on dance lessons; is that a normal amount? Dance Moms doesn’t bother to tell us anything about dance, so why should we care? On a show about a competitive pastime, it also shouldn’t be that hard to generate a little suspense, but Dance Moms is oddly anti-climactic, because there’s no footage of any the troupes Abby’s girls are up against.
Maybe most egregious of all is that the show is a complete eyesore, shot on video and in dance studios set with hideous fluorescent lighting. None of the mothers are bad-looking, yet their talking-head interviews look like hostage tapes shot on camera phones (which once again makes me appreciate the evil genius of the folks at Bravo). The appalling credit sequence is a botched rip-off of the Real Housewives interstitials, with the various Dance Moms posing in shiny high heels and doing lots of sassy arm-folding against a cheesy green-screen background. But they’re not fooling anyone.
If you want to watch a riveting show featuring girls dressed in hideous sequined outfits gyrating inappropriately, skip this dud, and watch My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding instead.