'Dancing with Stars' Gets Off on Right Foot

Dana Stevens, television critic for Slate magazine, tells Jennifer Ludden why the new reality show Dancing with the Stars has captivated viewers across America.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

One of the summer's surprise TV hits is yet another reality show. ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" is the American version of the BBC TV show "Strictly Come Dancing." It's managed to snare some 15 million viewers in just a few short weeks. In front of a live studio audience and three judges, a celebrity is paired with a professional dancer and must learn to samba, waltz and fox-trot. All that not for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but just a trophy. Joining me now is Dana Stevens. She's television critic for Slate magazine.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. DANA STEVENS (Television Critic, Slate Magazine): Hi. It's good to be here.

LUDDEN: Bring us up to date. It's getting close to the finals. I understand this past week there were some tears on the show.

Ms. STEVENS: Well, yeah. I mean, we're down to our last week. We've only got two couples left, and there'll be the final dance-off on Wednesday. I guess--Are you referring to Rachel Hunter being kicked off the show?

LUDDEN: Yeah.

Ms. STEVENS: There was some weeping that happened there, yeah.

LUDDEN: She wanted to be a dancer all her life.

Ms. STEVENS: And she was a big favorite with the audience. The audience loved her, and the judges did, too, but there--you know, a couple of bad dances and you get knocked off. There's a very mysterious balance of voting between the audience and the judges on that show that no one seems to quite understand, including the contestants.

LUDDEN: Oh, so they don't always agree?

Ms. STEVENS: Not at all. In fact, Kelly Monaco I think is still only on the show--the soap opera star, the "General Hospital" star, who's mainly there just because she's so sexy and she wears, you know, sort of the tightest and skimpiest outfits and occasionally has the odd wardrobe malfunction.

LUDDEN: And then the last celebrity is John O'Hurley, who many might know from "Seinfeld."

(Soundbite of "Dancing with the Stars")

Unidentified Man: Right now John's heart is running faster than a concierge from Russell Crowe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: How do you feel?

Mr. JOHN O'HURLEY: I'm just trying to make it look as though I'm not near death.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: John O'Hurley is great. In my opinion, he's going to take it. He's certainly the most charismatic performer on the show. I sort of think of him as the William Shatner of the dance floor. And he has a similar sense of humor about himself, too. He doesn't seem to mind being a C-lister on a ridiculous reality show.

LUDDEN: Now when you first heard of this, you wrote that you weren't convinced "Dancing with the Stars" was going to be worth the watch.

Ms. STEVENS: Yeah, it was strange. I actually pitched the piece to my editor thinking that the angle would be: `Why doesn't "American Idol" work in a dance format?' And then I'll be darned if I didn't think it did work, better than "American Idol" itself.

LUDDEN: Why?

Ms. STEVENS: My theory at the time was that it's just more fun to watch people dancing badly than it is to listen to them singing badly. And then I was talking about it with some colleagues and they were suggesting, `You know, maybe people just identify with the humiliation of dancing badly in public,' because everyone has to do it at some point in your life...

LUDDEN: Uh-huh.

Ms. STEVENS: ...whether you're having a mating ritual on a date or dancing your first dance at your wedding. Everybody knows what it is to have to dance in front of people and not be very good at it.

LUDDEN: Well, does this speak to some sort of widespread desire for people to ballroom dance?

Ms. STEVENS: You know, I don't know. I mean, ballroom dancing has already been coming back for several years, with "Shall We Dance?" the Japanese phenomenon that was remade as a Richard Gere movie, and people have been going to ballroom dance classes. And this summer, we've also got "Mad Hot Ballroom," the documentary about public school kids in New York learning to dance. So maybe it is sort of the crest of a phenomenon.

LUDDEN: I love one thing you write, that as opposed to "American idol," the contestants on this show know they're amateurs.

Ms. STEVENS: Yeah. Maybe that is part of the charm, too. I mean, I was just taking stabs in the dark trying to account for the sweetness of the show that--something that audiences respond to. You know, rather than these wanna-be stars who are trying for international stardom on "International Idol"--I mean, on "American Idol," they're not competing for money or for fame, just for this trophy. And they're paired with someone who is professional, so you see that contrast and there's something very sweet about it and very humbling.

LUDDEN: To set themselves up to look kind of bad.

Ms. STEVENS: Right, and they seem to take it all in stride. It's a lighthearted, insubstantial summer show.

LUDDEN: But not uncheesy.

Ms. STEVENS: Oh, absolutely cheesy, but that's a big part of the charm, too. The look of the show, the lighting and the costumes and the versions of old Sonny & Cher songs that they dance to--it's almost like a show like "Solid Gold" or "Lawrence Welk," you know, one of those variety shows from the '70s and '80s. So it has a retro feel that people seem strangely fascinated by.

LUDDEN: Any chance ABC will keep it around for the fall lineup?

Ms. STEVENS: I can't imagine that they wouldn't. I don't know how short-lived of a fad it will be, but "American Idol" has certainly made it through--What?--four seasons, so I'm sure they'll try to keep it around.

And, of course, FOX, as usual, is on the warpath trying to rip off ABC's success in this show. ABC--everything they touch seems to turn to gold lately, with "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," and they're the top broadcast network at the moment. And every reality format they do, FOX rips it off right away. So sure enough, July 20th, FOX is premiering a show called "So You Think You Can Dance?" which is the same format, but with hip-hop and modern dance forms and jazz and so forth.

Then I even heard that FOX has something in development called "Skating with Celebrities," or something like that, where people pair up on the ice and ice dance, I guess.

LUDDEN: Oh, that sounds ugly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Dana Stevens is a television critic for Slate magazine.

Thanks so much.

Ms. STEVENS: Thank you.

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