I Like to Watch

TV's dance marathon rages on, from the inspired kids of "So You Think You Can Dance" and "America's Best Dance Crew" to the inspired jackasses of "Dance Machine"!

Published June 29, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

What could be more suspicious than a trend? Trends reek of impermanence and fickleness and reflect badly on those easily seduced by their empty promise. The trendy may feel stubbornly proud as they sip on pomegranate-sake cocktails while texting in a Thai delivery order on their iPhones, but the rest of us look at them and feel pity in our hearts. We can't help imagining them 20 years ago, tossed helplessly on a churning sea of shoulder pads, fried cheese, leg warmers and boxed wine.

If trends are inherently questionable, TV trends are downright incriminatory. Serial dramas, game shows, talent competitions, anything involving celebrities -- these are the Members Only jackets and mullets of the TV world. No one really wants to be associated with such TV trends, since they're seen as the purview of the ignorant and the unimaginative, the sorts of people who sit down in front of their TV screens and tune in to whatever flashy, repetitive foolishness everyone else is watching. Ostensibly, my job as a TV critic is to direct you away from the sort of empty slop lapped up by the braying, wild-eyed, trend-driven herd.

Dances with wolves
But what if a trend is popular because it's good? If you consider some of the trends that have stood the test of time -- sushi, personal computers, soft pants, peanut butter cups -- it's clear that no trend can be dismissed by dint of its sudden swelling popularity alone.

Take dance shows. First of all, who knew that dance shows, the ultra-corny rainbow suspenders of televised entertainments, could ever make a comeback? From "American Bandstand" to "Soul Train" to "Dance Fever" to those unforgettable writhing groove machines of "Solid Gold," dance shows have always appealed more to melodramatic teenagers and drug-addled club-hoppers than to real human beings. Once our collective fever for dance was quelled, TV dance contests seemed out of the question, carrying a willfully dorky taint.

When "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance" burst onto our TV screens during the summer of 2005, most of us laughed and rolled our eyes. And, indeed, these shows were festooned with much cheesiness: foolish hosts, garish graphics, silly theme songs, ridiculous costumes, clownish judges and fraudiences packed full of demi-celebrities and high-strung preteens.

But the ratings hit the roof. "Dancing With the Stars" launched its way into ABC's fall prime-time lineup, while "So You Think You Can Dance" (8 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 p.m. Thursdays) continues to hold its own as one of Fox's prime offerings during the summer months.

And while "So You Think You Can Dance" certainly appears to suck, what with its tacky opening credits and its awful set and its screaming tween fans, in fact, it's a really good show that showcases great dancing. The young dancers of "SYTYCD" range from talented to downright breathtaking.

Each week, the dancers are asked to perform a different style of dance with an assigned partner, and somehow almost all of the couples manage to pull it off. After the judges weigh in, America votes for their favorite couples, and the bottom three are asked to "dance for their lives" in very short, solo performances, after which the judges decide on a female and male dancer to send home.

As disagreeable as that format sounds, it works very well in terms of featuring interesting and varied performances. Best of all, the dancers are electrified by the screaming crowds, and occasionally find themselves in some sort of magical, inspired zone. Dancers trained at hip-hop are suddenly fantastic at salsa, ballroom dancers become impressive contemporary dancers, jazz dancers wow the crowds with their disco, and watching it all feels like a real privilege.

Judges Nigel Lythgoe (a dancer and TV producer), Mary Murphy (a ballroom dancer and choreographer) and a rotating guest judge often swerve into severely gushing, unhinged or egomaniacal territory (Hello, Mia Michaels!), but that's part of the show's awkward charms. What's more important is that the judges are smart, honest and often genuinely, visibly moved by the fantastic performances.

Also, aside from the crappy sets and the general goofiness, there are really good artistic choices being made here: The show's producers play (mostly) good music, they hire innovative, talented choreographers, and they reward emotional, inspired dancing and dramatic improvement in the performers.

Compare those smart decisions to the awful ones made by the producers of "Step It Up & Dance": Several less-than-talented competitors, clearly chosen for their odd or flashy personalities, compete in uninteresting, unoriginal challenges, discuss their troubles with a lame Tim Gunn-substitute mentor, and deliver crappy performances that clearly don't impress the (somewhat lackluster) judges. What did it all add up to? A show that never gained momentum, never pulled us into rooting for one dancer or another, and ended in a fizzle when Cody, a professional dancer who remained remote and somewhat uninspired throughout, won. Despite wishful comments by the judges after Cody tried to at least appear emotive during his final performance, he really didn't grow much over the course of the competition, yet it was obvious from the very start that he'd win the whole thing given the weak competition (except for Michelle, of course).

Those who didn't watch might assume that "Step It Up & Dance" follows in "Project Runway's" hallowed footsteps, while "So You Think You Can Dance" is a cold nacho platter or a broken Sit 'n' Spin, i.e., just another crappy summer version of "American Idol." Those who do watch, however, know that "SYTYCD" is created by passionate people with high standards, and that level of quality is infectious: You can see it among the choreographers, you can see it among the dancers, and you can see it in the enthusiasm and intelligent comments of the judges. Whether you're a preteen or someone who just knows good dancing when they see it, "So You Think You Can Dance" dishes up an addictive, satisfying summer fix.

Trend swatting
If that sounds way too high-quality for your taste, then worry not. For every trendy show that bucks the trend of empty trends, there's a genuine piece of crap waiting in the wings: Although ABC's "Dance Machine" (8 p.m. Fridays) does have the word "dance" in its title, a more appropriate name might be "Jackass Machine" since the show provides that rare opportunity for the jackass to showcase his jackassian nature in front of a stunned nation.

Imagine a game-show format like "Deal or No Deal." Picture a host with the maximum allowable cheese quotient per minute that censors will tolerate. Now throw in a gaggle of sad human beings, some of them wearing suits and ties to enhance the "man on the street," regular-guy aspect.

Can you see it? Can you see the bald guy in the suit and tie do a little flip and fall on his head? Can you imagine an overweight woman, trying to do a split as the crowd roars? Can you picture an older lady with no rhythm, flashing her black granny panties to a stricken nation? No? Well, just listen to the voice-over on this page and it will all become clearer.

My favorite part of all, though, is when the host asks, "Randomizer, who's our next dancer?" and then lights flash and computer sounds go "Beep! Beepbeepbeepbeep beep!" and then the lights around one of the jackasses onstage flash and flash. The Randomizer has made its choice!

This show represents a blend of several crappy trends into one scary package: bad prime-time game shows, crappy dance shows, and regular people acting like jackholes. If we want to see ordinary people dancing their hearts out, we can always consult YouTube to find the best of the best. Otherwise, it's just an extended exercise in rubbernecking.

Doesn't anyone at ABC feel at least some small glimmer of shame over creating a way for those desperate for attention to embarrass themselves on a large scale?

ABC this summer: The dumb starts here.

Hip-hop 'til you drop
If "Dance Machine" represents the worst of several trends, "America's Best Dance Crew" (10 p.m. Thursdays on MTV) reflects what can happen when a trend organically springs to life on the small screen.

Now, you may question my use of the word "organic" when you see dimpled himbo Mario Lopez striding across the stage in a tight, powder-blue V-neck sweater and neatly gelled hair, yelling "Ah-ight!" and "Lookin' so tight!" at the crowd, serving up that carefully calibrated blend of MTV-style street cred.

But look a little closer. Instead of auditioning talented dancers and separating them into groups (like the assigned couples of "So You Think You Can Dance") or auditioning untalented jackasses and branding them with stereotypes (like the "funky businessman" and "nutty granny" of "Dance Machine"), "America's Best Dance Crew" takes preexisting dance crews and has them compete in weekly challenges in front of a live audience.

Even though the show is made in MTV's signature cracker-hip-hop style, its basic building blocks are these odd little bunches of young people who get together in their free time and choreograph dance routines. Just think about that. Kids, who spend their time working really hard on their group dance numbers. Maybe I've gone soft, but something about that seems really sweet and lovable to me.

And the kids are sweet and lovable, too -- or at least MTV singles out one sweet and lovable kid per group and makes you sniffle a little over his or her particulars.

Ailyn from the crew So Real: My mom and dad definitely do not support me dancing. I work my butt off just trying to prove to them how much this really means to me, and like, without their support ... (tearily) It's really hard!

Joey, a deaf dancer from A.S.I.I.D.: I thank God every single day for amazing friends like these people. I wish I had those people when I was younger, because ... (tearily) it would've helped me out a lot!

Aww, huggable teenagers! Where did they find these rare treasures? Then, when you see the other dancers embracing Joey or you watch So Real practicing their seriously cool moves on the sidewalk, in front of a mirrored building because they have no dance studio with a big mirror where they can rehearse? Well, suffice it to say it makes you pretty excited to watch the little hip-hop whippersnappers perform for a live audience.

And they do, and it's awesome! Or most of the time it is. Some of the crews are a little bit like boy bands, some of them break dance, some of them are more like high school cheerleaders (except angrier and sluttier -- if that's possible). All of them, though, are entertaining and strange and they make this stuff up all by themselves. Let's face it, it's pretty hard not to love plucky teenagers who cooperate, on their own, to create something original and entertaining -- even when it's angry and a little bit slutty.

And you really have to hand it to MTV, the Trend Channel, for knowing what's going on out there in the youth universe (because the rest of us sure don't). While MTV typically takes a trend and makes it repugnant and incomprehensible to crusty old people like you and me, in this case, they've taken something pretty cool (dance crews) and formed a reasonably fun, entertaining competition to showcase them.

Shane Sparks, a well-known choreographer and guest judge from "So You Think You Can Dance," is on the judging panel, along with Lil' Mama (rapper) and JC Chasez (former member of 'N Sync). Sparks tends to have the most illuminating comments, either passionately loving a performance or remaining utterly unimpressed. Because Sparks has seen every move in the book, you know that when he calls something original, that means it really is. Lil' Mama mostly compliments groups on "going hard" (thumbs up!) or warns them, "Don't overbreak for nobody!" (thumbs down!), and while I don't know exactly what she means, I usually agree with her. Chasez is a little too wishy-washy and doesn't take much of a stand -- like a smarter, less confused but equally vague Paula Abdul.

So far, my favorite dance crews in the competition are A.S.I.I.D., Fanny Pak and So Real. (Don't expect to get the full effect of their performances on YouTube -- that grainy video really doesn't do them justice.)

But let's be honest: The crowds of gum-smacking, hooting teenagers and the enthusiasm of Mario Lopez ("It's aaalll goin' down!" "Aah-ight, the judges aren't playin' this season!") are likely to turn you off at first, so remember, the point here is to watch the little tear-jerky vignettes about each group, see them perform, then hear the judges weigh in. You're going to need to keep your finger hovering over the fast-forward button for everything else, whether it's the endless "Who's in the bottom two this week?" segments or the endless commercial breaks for which MTV has become notorious.

Like visiting Pinkberry in the off-hours or ignoring the raucous laughter in response to every middling joke at the "Sex and the City" premiere, sometimes you have to disregard the accompanying hype around a trend in order to enjoy it. If you scrape away the cynicism and focus on the performances, "America's Best Dance Crew" and "So You Think You Can Dance" both treat us to something rare and special: Young people mastering a skill and using it to channel something bigger than themselves. As punch-drunk on laced Kool-Aid as it makes me sound, it's true: These kids are beautiful, and whatever noise comes before or after, that's all that matters.

By 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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