Fox's 'Dance' Does the Jerk

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

When rock bottom no longer seems low enough, one must resort to drastic measures -- none more drastic than taking a peek at the Fox network's summertime programming. It's a relatively quick if not easy way to remind yourself how demoralizing and tedious the truly execrable can be.

"So You Think You Can Dance," the latest Fox suppository, borrows its basic format from the network's justifiably popular "American Idol," though with dancing substituted for singing it will remind many viewers of "Dancing With the Stars," the recent ABC hit in which celebrities practiced their ballroom dancing on the air. "So You Think You Can Dance" is a talent competition staged by people who appear to be spectacularly untalented themselves.

The series premiered last night with a two-hour episode, and it quickly became clear that Nigel Lythgoe, the chief producer and a former choreographer, thinks he has latched onto at least one fascinating star: Nigel Lythgoe. One of three "Idol"-like judges rating the contestants, Lythgoe cast himself in the nasty Simon Cowell role, dishing out insults even to people he chose as winners. (The other two judges spoke little, were barely identified and disappeared altogether in the second half of the program.)

Two young men who had covered themselves in white powder, making themselves look as though they were carved out of stone, performed a little act they'd perfected on the street corners of Chicago. Lythgoe told them, "If you were statues and I were a pigeon, I'd let you know what I thought." But then he told them they could both advance to the next stage of the competition.

"You looked bored stiff," Lythgoe said earlier -- addressing not the home viewer but a pudgy young dancer named Christine. He told another girl her movements resembled those of a "tumble dryer," ha ha. "Dance" belongs not so much to the genre of reality TV as it does to that of humiliation television. Viewers are implicitly promised they will see people belittled and insulted, perhaps -- if the producers are lucky -- to the point of tears.

Lythgoe reached his own personal worst with a prolonged tirade that sounded like poorly disguised homophobia. Imagine staging a dancing competition and having a few gay boys show up! That this might have surprised him is absurd enough, but Lythgoe took off after one young man in particular -- an obviously talented kid named Anthony -- for not looking "masculine" enough when he danced. Whatever that meant.

"I need boy dancers to be strong, masculine!" Lythgoe bellowed. "You did not look like a masculine dancer with your partner." As part of the contest, the rules to which are a hopeless mass of confusion, the dancers must pair up for one number. Little if any of Anthony's team portion was shown to viewers, so who knew if Lythgoe had a leg to stand on, but the point is that his criticism morphed into a vendetta.

Assuming any conflict to be good TV, the producers kept teasing viewers with little excerpts from this encounter throughout the show. Those who watched the full two hours (or rather, the empty two hours) heard the poor lad defending his masculinity four times. This goes beyond bad taste and simple sadism to outright insanity.

The playing field for the competition was anything but level. Anthony, for instance, said he was studying dance at the Juilliard School in New York, which would seem to give him an unfair advantage over contestants who'd had no training. A few others indicated they had danced professionally. The competition also included folk dancers who were keeping various ethnic traditions alive; tossing them into a dance-off with Las Vegasy booty-shakers was pointless.

Once the solos were out of the way and the dancers had expressed their individuality, they were sent off to be "choreographed" by a professional, with the ultimate goal to become part of a team of dancers and thereby have their individuality crushed. According to the opening announcements last night, the hundreds of dancers who auditioned will be winnowed down eventually to eight men and eight women and then someone will get to go to New York, "the dance capital of the world," and win a cash prize of $100,000.

Anyone who survived the first night, however, was grandly invited by Lythgoe, in his best "American Idol" tones, to "come to Hollywood" for another go-round. Next week's show was taped in Los Angeles, which will make the invitation to "come to Hollywood" sound particularly ridiculous. To further muddle the pot, Lythgoe made occasional allusions to some other production he's putting together in which dancers will appear.

"We're casting a show here where we want unique people to take back to Hollywood," Lythgoe lectured one contestant. Who knows what the devil he is talking about? What show?

Ineptitude haunted "Dance" from the very beginning, when the host made it sound as though various rounds of competition had already been completed and that what we were watching was a documentary about "So You Think You Can Dance," not the show itself. Camerawork was so poor that dancers occasionally vanished out of the frame, and Lythgoe was featured in so many reaction shots that it was sometimes hard to remember who was onstage.

Inevitably, because human beings are fascinating mammals, there were sweet or funny or affecting moments. One young woman wept so ferociously that a paramedic had to be called -- and this after she'd been told she'd survived the first round! Eventually she decided the pressure was too much and limped home, dropping out. Another young woman had her happiness under control, emerging from the judges' chambers to declare the whole experience "exuberating."

There were also the predictable appearances by egomaniacs and the hopelessly self-deluded. Some of the most telegenic performers were eliminated after barely being glimpsed by the audience at home -- which so far has no voice in who stays and who goes. The show doesn't invite viewers in, as "American Idol" does, but instead shuts them out.

Perhaps the young man who'd taken predictable umbrage at Lythgoe's barbs and at being rejected on network TV put it best. He left the building simply shouting the word "crap" over and over. Vulgar, maybe, but succinct -- and painfully accurate.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company