No polarizing politico on 'Dancing With the Stars' - but Williams brings drama

Monday, March 21, 2011; 11:59 PM

"Dancing With the Stars" returned to ABC's lineup Monday without a polarizing political figure - to the everlasting disappointment of the media.

There was, however, plenty of drama on the season debut.

Talk show host Wendy Williams - this season's diva - on tape asked her pro dance partner, Tony Dovolani, who he was, as though he were one of the little people who are part of her retinue. She then proceeded to have a good cry during rehearsal to release her tension, she said as she was mopping up her tears with her wig.

After her surprisingly timid performance - like someone making her way around a crowded dance floor, only there were no other dancers there - she complained: "I had no idea our [taped] piece was going to play me getting upset!"

"Surprise surprise! Welcome to 'Dancing With the Stars'!" retorted judge Carrie Ann Inaba .

Even though - as judge Len Goodman pointed out - Williams's "dumplings were boiling over" in her gold miniskirted get-up, the judges savaged her performance. It got worse backstage, when Williams nearly came to blows with co-host Brooke Burke, who seemed surprised Williams had wept. "You don't watch my show enough," Williams said dismissively. Then she began to prattle on about how many times she's cried at her studio audience - only Brooke, seeing the clock ticking, cut her off to ask: "How does this feel?"

"Fine!" Williams barked, sending a withering look Brooke's way.

Despite the drama, there's no getting around it - there wasn't a politician or politician's daughter in sight, as the press had been banking on before the lineup was announced.

Yahoo, for example, called the new lineup a "stumble" and said that the names of this year's participants had been revealed "to, let's say, an underwhelmed public." And by "public," Yahoo meant "the press." It cited disappointed reviews of the lineup by the New York Times and Movieline.

Which, some would argue, is not "the public" - by a country mile.

Which is why, as we've said before, covering TV is best left to professionals.

Serious students of TV know that the fall edition of "Dancing With the Stars," which was made infamous by the surprising success of Bristol Palin - professional abstinence advocate, daughter of maybe-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and darling of tea party bloggers - is not the most-watched season of the dance competition. In fact, it falls behind two seasons whose celeb lineups are as free of polarizing political figures as this season, whose participants (besides Williams) include:

l Actress/professional dieter Kirstie Alley

l Former Playboy playmate Kendra Wilkinson

l Long-ago "Karate Kid" Ralph Macchio

l Disney Channel creation Chelsea Kane

l Boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard

l Ex-supermodel Petra Nemcova

l Radio and "Loveline" personality Mike Catherwood

l Rapper Romeo Miller

l Football All-Pro Hines Ward

l WWE star Chris Jericho.

The most-watched edition of "Dancing With the Stars" aired in the spring of 2010. It is best remembered as the season in which our nightmares were changed forever by the sight of Kate Gosselin performing Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi." In case your therapist has succeeded in wiping it from your memory, that was the performance in which Gosselin gave her interpretation of Boris Karloff if, while filming "Frankenstein," he had suddenly decided to break into a pasodoble. Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger won that season. If you can barely remember her win, you are not alone.

The "Dancing: The Palin Edition" season - won by Jennifer Grey, whose victory will also soon be forgotten in the annals of "Dancing" history - also was not as well-watched as the fall '07 edition of the dance competition.

That's the season in which Marie Osmond famously fainted after her performance, on national TV, once again illustrating why Tom Bergeron is the best reality-competition series host ever, no matter how much the TV academy insists otherwise at Emmy time.

That season's celebrity lineup was also considered kinda ho-hummish, by media standards:

l Josie Maran

l Albert Reed

l Wayne Newton

l Floyd Mayweather

l Mark Cuban

l Sabrina Bryan

l Cameron Mathison

l Jennie Garth

l Marie Osmond

l Mel B

l Helio Castroneves.

"This is probably the most competitive season ever," exec producer Conrad Green told The TV Column on Monday.


"No one is exceptional, and no one is atrocious," Green elaborated.


This season, he said, is "exactly what a season should be - a whole lot of people who don't know how to dance, learning."

Sure, he's acknowledged that there have been seasons in which you didn't find yourself saying "Who?" so much when the names were unveiled. Like that Gosselin season. That year's lineup also included ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews, aging hottie Pamela Anderson, actress/train-wreck Shannen Doherty, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, Olympic gold-medal figure skater Evan Lysacek, soap star Aiden Turner, "Reno 911" star Niecy Nash and "The Bachelor" competitor Jake Pavelka, as well as the aforementioned Scherzinger.

But that season of "Dancing," Green said, "they'd made a big push to relaunch the show" after the ratings misstep of the ninth edition, which was the franchise's least-watched in-season edition ever. That fumble featured former U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay, by the way, and was the season in which the producers decided to beef up the number of competitors to 16 - and viewers responded, "Not so fast."

For the 10th edition, they just got lucky, Green said: A lot of people they'd been trying to get to do the show for some time finally succumbed.

And the resulting lineup? Kismet.

"If Kate Gosselin had been a different type of dancer and if her video packages had been different," maybe that edition would not have caught on with viewers the way it did, Green said. When it comes to trying to figure out which celeb mix is best, and which will churn out the most spectacular taped bits, "it's all a complete mystery to us," he said.

The press has got this season pegged all wrong, Green said.

"This cast we've got at the moment is one of the most 'characterful' " ever, he said.

"Everyone is a big character in his own way. I haven't laughed so much in ages" working with the competitors, he said.

"It actually feels to me quite appropriate for this time," he said. "Escapist entertainment, lots of laughs, and a lot you can root for," which is just what we need "with the miserable things that are happening" in the world.

HBO options Cheney book

HBO announced it has optioned Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman's book "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," to develop as a miniseries.

Emmy Award-winning Rick Cleveland ("Six Feet Under," "The West Wing") has begun writing the four-parter, based on Gellman's book and the award-winning "Frontline" documentary "The Dark Side."

The miniseries, HBO said, will profile the man "whose single-minded pursuit of enhanced power for the presidency was unprecedented in the nation's history."

The project will follow Cheney from his early days as Donald Rumsfeld's protege in the Nixon administration to becoming the nation's youngest chief of staff (under President Ford) to serving as secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush and through two controversial terms as vice president under President George W. Bush.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company