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Bravo's fine tradition of torturing creative professionals continues with "Step It Up & Dance" while NBC's "Friday Night Lights" gets another chance to shine.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published April 13, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

STEP IT UP & DANCE -- "Baring It All" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Cody, Nick, Oscar -- Bravo Photo: Isabella Vosmikova (Isabella Vosmikova)
STEP IT UP & DANCE -- "Baring It All" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Cody, Nick, Oscar -- Bravo Photo: Isabella Vosmikova (Isabella Vosmikova)

When my sister and I were kids, we made our Star Wars action figures go on dates with each other. First we'd take turns picking our favorite action figures, then we'd set up "apartments" for each of them. (We knew from "Three's Company" that single people always lived in apartments.) Next, Luke would knock on Leia's door, but she'd usually say she was busy or had to wash her hair, because she secretly wanted to go out with Mark (that was the hunkier "Empire Strikes Back" version of Luke) or Harrison (the hunky "Empire Strikes Back" Han Solo). Finally, once everyone went on dates and kissed good night and went on dates again without any broken hearts or unexpected pregnancies, we needed to mix things up a little. So Mark would dump Leia for Bespin Leia (the fancy "Empire Strikes Back" Leia who Lando said truly belonged with them "among the clouds" of Bespin City), and Bespin Leia would cheat on Mark with Harrison, or Luke would start stalking Carrie ("Empire Strikes Back" Leia in "Hoth" garb). But even with so much drama and intrigue in the air, the second we started to mix and match the couples, we'd quickly begin to lose interest in the game. Who cared if Bespin Leia dated Mark then Luke then Harrison then Luke again, really? After a while, the relationships felt arbitrary, and sometimes Leia would elope with Chewbacca just to piss everyone off.

Whenever a solid teen drama like "The O.C." (in the early days) or "Gossip Girl" or "Friday Night Lights" starts to stumble down a soapier and soapier path, and the quarterback pines for the coach's daughter who likes the bad boy who wants the cheerleader who likes the strait-laced geek, and then everyone changes partners and do-si-dos? I think about our hormonally charged action figures, knocking on doors as we put the finishing touches on their apartments: That was the best part of the game. The heart-pounding anticipation of love, waiting to see if the devil-may-care smuggler pilot liked you, too, and hoping against hope that he'd take you out for a ride in the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.

That's why, when on "Friday Night Lights," former cheerleader Lyla started dating a good Christian boy and quarterback Saracen fell in love with his grandmother's nurse and bad boy Riggins was pining for Lyla and geek Landry loved bad girl Tyra who secretly loved him, too, I wanted to say to the show's producers, "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!" In other words, cut this soapy musical chairs routine and give us something with some heart and a little grit, damn it! Put away the dolls and write a real story, for Chrissakes!

Knock-knock jokes
This week, NBC announced its new lineup, and "Friday Night Lights" is coming back for a third season, thanks to a strange deal with DirecTV, which dictates that the show will air on DirecTV in October and then on NBC in early 2009.

This means I finally have a reason to watch the last episode of the (strike-shortened) second season, which has been sitting on my TiVo, unloved and forlorn, for weeks now. Thank God FNL's producers will have another chance to recapture the soul of the show's first season. In the second season, they clearly wanted to prove that FNL wasn't really about football, but as a result, the football team felt like an afterthought. During the first season, we understood the role of the team and its games in the town of Dillon. We saw how many lives were wrapped up in the teams' victories and defeats. We met ordinary people with ordinary problems.

You can't just make all your main characters fall in love with each other, confess their love, break up, change partners, rinse, repeat. All we saw, show after show, was some character knocking on the door to some other character's house to confess his love, and then she'd say she had to shampoo her hair or they'd kiss and the music soared and that was it. What really went on between Saracen and that nurse? We never knew. Why was Riggins hung up on Lyla? How did Lyla feel about Riggins? Who can say?

This is a common problem for dramas, particularly those that bring to life the often fickle concerns of teenagers. You introduce a big group of characters who fit into a story organically: Landry is Saracen's snide buddy and sidekick, Tyra is Riggins' lost ex-girlfriend, Lyla is the handicapped star quarterback's supportive girlfriend. Once you start dreaming up new story lines, though, you make the mistake of putting your sidekicks and exes in the spotlight, and suddenly you not only have way too many characters to service, but you've got sidekicks trying to hold down their own stories. Of course we love Landry as the snappy sounding board for Saracen's angst and confusion, but do we really want him front and center? No. He's just not all that charismatic -- he wasn't made for a leading role. Giving him a major plotline is like having Leia elope with Chewbacca.

Worse than all the changing partners, of course, are the moral dilemmas faced by these teens. "Should I really dump this body in the river?" "Should I invite my thug friends to my surrogate daddy's house?" "Should I beat that racist guy's face in and risk losing my scholarship?" "Should I skip practice and get wasted with Riggins?" While Landry's murder plot was as ill-considered and unbelievable as Chewbacca opening fire on a crowd of lovelorn action figures (I'm pretty sure that happened in our childhood games at least once), these other, smaller indiscretions are the lazy equivalent of "The O.C.'s" endlessly repeating "Welcome to the O.C., bitch!" style of fisticuffs.

Surely there's more to being a high school kid than unrequited love and big, stupid mistakes! But at least now FNL's writers have another chance to show us the sometimes mundane, always heartfelt concerns of the down-to-earth, sentimental, small-town folks we grew to love in the first season.

Step by step
If down-to-earth, regular folks are your thing, you certainly won't find them on "Step It Up & Dance" (10 p.m. Thursdays on Bravo), yet another reality dance competition for the millions of viewers who just can't get enough of dance shows, of all things. Doesn't that make you feel like it's the early '80s and you've just gone to see John Travolta's Tony Manero try to become a Broadway dancer in the deliciously awful movie "Staying Alive"?

As easy as it would be to write off "Step It Up & Dance" as just another dance show, it's actually pretty different from either "So You Think You Can Dance" or "Dancing With the Stars." Best described as a dance version of "Project Runway" or "Top Chef," the show features contestants who are mostly professional dancers, either members of modern dance troupes, performers in Broadway musicals, or dancers who've toured with pop and R&B stars. So, while "Dancing With the Stars" attempts to turn celebrities into dancers and "So You Think You Can Dance" takes mostly twentysomething dancing amateurs and turns them into versatile dancers-for-hire, "Step It Up & Dance" takes a group of proficient, professional dancers and basically tortures them with impossibly difficult choreography (think "Quickfire Challenge") for the chance to win $100,000.

This has become a time-honored tradition with Bravo's reality competitions: take talented professionals and make them do insanely difficult tasks while the clock ticks and the cameras roll. You can tell these dancers are much more professional that the ones on other shows, because when they're learning new choreography, they're focused and self-possessed and they don't laugh and chat with each other. Unlike, say, "America's Next Top Model," this isn't about young people, giggling and squabbling. These are intense, motivated, seriously egocentric people. For this reason, Bravo's reality competitions seem to target adult viewers who can relate more to neurotics and control freaks and stubborn, overconfident thirtysomethings than they can to naive teenagers with no notion of how to play nicely with others. While some of the contestants on "Step It Up & Dance" are very young, most of them have already had careers: Mochi has performed with "The Lion King" on Broadway since 2001, Cody went to Juilliard and performed in the Broadway shows "Moving Out," "Grease" and "Mama Mia," Adriana (who was eliminated for her "Staying Alive"-style moves during the first episode) is in a contemporary jazz dance company in New York, and Michael has toured with Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé. These dancers are familiar with hard work, and they mean business.

Of course, this also makes them seriously smug and full of themselves, and somehow a dancer's pretensions are particularly amusing. Miguel begins by telling us, "My dance style is called jazz funk, and I would say that I'm a pioneer of the genre itself. I am the most amazing performer you'll ever see on the stage." He says that telling him he's not talented would be "like telling Da Vinci, 'I'm sorry, you're not a good painter.'" Later, James describes himself as "23 years young and beautiful." Even the dancers who don't brag a lot make it clear to us that the art of dance is a force of good that will eventually end global warming, cure world hunger, and make all the little children of the world hold hands and sing in the streets.

And you have to love the unbridled cheese of the "Pack your knives and go" scene, in which the freshly eliminated dancer enters an empty, dramatically lit studio and does a somewhat melancholy farewell dance for the viewers at home. Through my movements, I express my regrets and hopes for the future! those pointy toes and graceful, sweeping arms seem to say. Or maybe they're saying, I'm one of the pioneers of jazz funk, damn it!

Sometimes it's tough to tell the difference. But at least one thing is clear to these dancers, as it should be to you: Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!

Next week: The finale of "The Real Housewives of New York City" features more classless, tasteless lessons in class and taste. Then, the suspicions and paranoia build on "Battlestar"!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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