Dancing with the Stars has seen its ratings drop for many seasons and Season 29 was supposed to be sort of a renaissance for the show, but in the end, the season finale saw its lowest ratings ever – 6.41 million viewers. (In 2006, 27.50 million viewers tuned in!) The season ended with four celebrity and pro-dancer couples (Justina Machado and Sasha Farber, Nelly and Daniella Karagach, Nev Schulman and Jenna Johnson and Kaitlyn Bristowe and Artem Chigvintsev) with Bristowe and Chigvintsev taking home the mirrored ball trophy.
Now that season 29 of Dancing with the Stars is done, can we talk about the large shower poof in the room? A lot of fingers are pointing to host and executive producer Tyra Banks, but the problems with the show go beyond her. Still, she has a sizable role and some of her decisions may have killed the show for good.
Losing Its Heart
Until season 29, the format of Dancing with the Stars has remained fairly consistent. The very first season of the show debuted during the summer of 2005. If featured just six contestants, the same three judges we have grown to love (Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman, and Bruno Tonioli) and two hosts (Tom Bergeron and Lisa Canning). Because of COVID-19, the show was forced to make major changes including eliminating the large dance performances, kick out the live audience and scale down on the crew. And that part was okay. But ABC did the show a real disservice when it decided to replace Tom Bergeron and then-current co-host, Erin Andrews. (It is unclear if this decision was made before we knew anything about COVID-19)
Tom Bergeron was never the star of the show, but he was the heart of it. He was the one constant that even when the show got dull, you could always rely on him to make you laugh and smile. And he really seemed to care for all of the stars. Andrews was by far the show’s best co-host over the years, so it was disappointing to hear that she had been let go as well.
Also because of the pandemic, Len Goodman was unable to leave the UK to be a part of the American show in person. ABC had promised that he would still be a part of the season. He was shown briefly in many episodes of the show explaining different dance moves. It was a nice touch, but they could have done more with the head judge who viewers love to hate and pro-dancers respect his critiques. The show did however make a great decision to add former pro dancer Derek Hough to take his place. He treated the role with respect it deserves.
It’s Not About You
One thing that has always made DWTS stand out from other reality shows is that show has never made it about the judges or hosts. Like American Idol or even The Masked Singer, the emphasis has always been on the stars/contestants. Shows like The Voice tend to worship its celebrity judges/coaches rather than celebrating the actual singers. Despite this, The Voice is a ratings winner.
It seems pretty clear that ABC execs thought that they needed a really big star to pull in viewers. They decided that they needed someone like Tyra Banks. Not only that, they also decided that it was a good idea to make her a exective producer for the show as well.
Now, I don’t really mind Banks as a host, but she just doesn’t seem to connect with the stars, the judges or the audience. She does a lot of talking and finds new ways to let us know that the show is being presented “live,” but that’s about it. She’s not warm or genuine nor does she appear to feel sad to see contestants go when their time is up.
But Tyra has made it clear that she IS the star of the show. She is given her own special announcement at the beginning of each week and enters the ballroom wearing larger-than-life costume as if she was walking down the catwalk. This is intentional. The star has said that she wanted to bring more fashion into the ballroom but viewers have often questioned her choices. And there are a lot of fashions as Banks tends to wear two different outfits for each show as if it were an award show.
Over the years, DWTS has been criticized for inviting questionable “stars,” to compete, but the show has had a broad definition for what a star is. They have always chosen a variety of celebrities from different backgrounds with the premise of wondering which one would do better. Would the TV star do better with the football player? Would the older actress beat out the younger model? The idea is a good one, but often the stars featured on the show are well-known to some fans and a mystery to others. For instance, grandma probably isn’t going to recognize the young YouTube star, but the kids will. Even so, this year’s crop of guests is still baffling. Viewers want to root for stars that give us a reason to care about them. Some of them on the show didn’t do that.
Sure, Carole Baskin is well known because of The Tiger King docuseries, but she is basically a villain, unliked by many and no one expected that she would have a shot of winning. She was added to the cast purely to get curious people to tune in. Charles Oakley was a good choice, but unfortunately he was too stiff. Both Anne Heche and Jesse Metcalfe have made headlines in the past, but they haven’t appeared in anything significant in years. Justina Machado was a great surprise, but I suspect most viewers had never heard of her before this show. You get the idea. The average family watches the show and asks, “Who is that again?”
Skills or Popularity is Still a Problem
Both Anne Heche and Johnny Weir complained that the show was nothing more than a popularity contest, but this is nothing new. From the very beginning, the show has had to fight skills vs. popularity. Season 1 featured Bachelorette star Trista Sutter, heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield, supermodel Rachel Hunter, New Kids on the Block singer Joey McIntyre, actor John O’Hurley and actress Kelly Monaco. In the end, Monaco got the most votes despite the fact the O’Hurley got better scores from the judges. (A rematch special was quickly scheduled and during that presentation, it was O’Hurley that one.)
But stars can only use the popularity excuse so far. In recent seasons, it is the judges’ decision of which of the two couples on the bottom will be sent home. Weir was “saved” twice, Heche wasn’t.
I love themes when they are done well on DWTS. This year, the show just went through the motions dressing up the pairs in different costumes. Even “Disney Night,” normally a big thing, was extremely lackluster this year. Apparently Covid-19 caused Mickey Mouse and friends to stay home, but a snail from the Main Street Electrical Parade was there.
Don’t get me wrong, “Disney Night” can get out of hand as a promotional tool for the company, but with the exception of Jeannie Mai and Brandon Armstrong’s dance inspired by the film Up and Nev Schulman’s take on Captain Jack Sparrow, there wasn’t much put into telling a story through their dances. This also happened during “Villains” Week (Halloween) and “80’s” week.
In addition, making the judges wear costumes was fun at first, but it didn’t really serve a purpose and I think it lowered their credibility.
People don’t watch DWTS to see the cute “funny” little skits that they do on the show. In fact, they are just annoying. This has been a problem with the show for years but sometimes they were able to create something truly wonderful such as the ESPN spoof “Dance Center” with Kenny Mayne. Here he would roast the stars given them outrageous critiques. Instead, we got sketches showing Banks going through the Ballroom Burgers drive-thru misunderstanding that the employee just wanted to get her order, no who she thought would win the competition. Kudos though to trying to incorporate all of the stars in some way each week. Unfortunately, not all of them are good with comedy.
It was Just Dull
With all this said, for me, Season 29 for just terribly dull to watch except for a few highlight during the last couple of weeks when the remaining dancers got really good. I know the show tried to get me to care about the stars, but they didn’t give much to work with. I would have like to get to know each of them a little better. Maybe it’s because the show failed to show them as real people unlike previous seasons or maybe it was Bank’s lackluster interviews with each of them after their performances. There seemed to be a lot less “fun” dances this season too. Derrik Hough’s solo dance performance during the finals was a great reminder of just how clever the show can be when given the chance.
Here’s to a better 2021.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.