The success of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars may complete our current cultural Möbius strip: Irony has now been embraced so completely, we’ve become downright earnest. It’s quite possible to buy into Dancing only for its absurd lineup (Tatum O’Neal, Master P) — and then, by week 3, to find yourself on tenterhooks, rooting for former 98 Degree-er Drew Lachey to pull off his tricky ”Thriller”-themed paso doble. Which he did, inspiring one judge to proclaim it ”the best paso doble of every celebrity of every series I’ve ever seen!” — a category that would seem so exclusive as to be unworthy of mention.
Dancing is full of such breathless exclamations. Despite its Surreal Life setup — 10 not-so-much-stars-as-why-don’t-we-say-”personalities” are paired with professional dancers, with one couple eliminated each week — Dancing‘s charm isn’t as a celebrity freak show. Sure, seeing people whose job it is to appear unruffled suddenly counting steps awkwardly as they dance for us live has the same appeal as paparazzi photos of stars with food in their teeth. But this is not nearly as bash-the-D-lister snickery as something like VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club. (Jeff Conaway, please take care of yourself. I worry.) In fact, Dancing‘s deep, square sincerity is its most transfixing quality. America’s Funniest Home Videos staple Tom Bergeron is the host (along with the very enthusiastic Samantha Harris, who replaced season 1’s bland Lisa Canning); a live band lends a Doc Severinsen vibe; the audience gives every act a standing O; and the celeb competitors really, really want to win. We know this because during the flabby 90-minute broadcasts, they’re repeatedly asked how they’re feeling. Never has meaningless patter been so prevalent. ”Hard work and a lot of heart can win the game,” exhorted the now-booted TV journalist Giselle Fernandez, whose underdog strategy of reminding everyone she had an incredibly small fan base failed to mobilize her incredibly small fan base. Other tips include just going out there and having fun, giving it your all, and believing in yourself. George Hamilton, with his cheesy wisecracks and dashing self-effacement, is the only participant with an ounce of spontaneity — even when it’s scripted.
Still, it’s the fact that these folks are so fully invested that almost tricks you into caring. (Except during those one-hour results shows on Fridays — padded with dance numbers from the Pussycat Dolls and endless recaps — which are the boringest thing on TV.) Lisa Rinna, toned and tanned and claiming that a higher power possessed her body during the paso doble competition, is, at press time, not only giving it her all and believing in herself — she’s one hell of a little dancer. Unlike Fox rip-off Skating With Celebrities, the stars here actually have pretty sharp moves, Master P’s much-reviled clomp-shuffle-groan routine aside. To the untrained eye, Lachey, Rinna, and WWE wrestler Stacy Keibler are as good as…last season’s winner, Kelly Monaco. When they get cooking, you sorta want to get up and dance. And I say that not at all ironically. I think.