The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Dancing With the Stars’ perfected a formula for kitschy, escapist joy. Can it survive today’s politics?

Country radio personality Bobby Bones and his pro dance partner, Sharna Burgess, celebrate with hosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews after winning Season 27 of “Dancing With the Stars” last year. (Eric McCandless/ABC)

The New York Post could barely contain its glee. “ ‘DANCING’ FOOLS — LAME HAS-BEENS HAVING A BALLROOM,” the headline chortled atop a June 2005 takedown of a new reality series called “Dancing With the Stars.”

“ABC must have gone to the well, or maybe that’s the cesspool, and dredged up some of the lowest level ‘celebrities’ available in the country today for this competition show,” critic Linda Stasi snarked of the premiere, starring “Bachelorette” Trista Sutter, boxing champion Evander Holyfield and New Kids on the Block veteran Joey McIntyre.

One day later, the Post had to run another headline: “ ‘DANCING’ IS A SWINGING SUCCESS.” The series premiere had earned a whopping 13.5 million viewers — the highest-rated summer debut since the groundbreaking “Survivor” five years earlier.

It was far from the last time that someone mocked “Dancing With the Stars” for being exactly what it is — a hokey ballroom dance contest that its own executive producer describes as “slightly crazy” — only to later acknowledge its oddly enduring appeal. Launched as a six-episode adaptation of the British hit “Strictly Come Dancing,” the show quickly morphed into one of the biggest cultural forces on television — a fame-boosting platform for distantly remembered celebrities and a redemption tool for tarnished public figures.

Fourteen years later, “Dancing” isn’t the ratings giant it once was — last season averaged 8.6 million viewers, barely squeaking into the Top 35 most-watched TV shows. But it can still hijack the water cooler. An outright furor erupted when Sean Spicer — formerly President Trump’s falsehood-prone press secretary — was announced as a cast member for Season 28, which premieres Monday. And here’s the irony that tells you everything about “Dancing”: The scandal wasn’t that a former White House official was selling himself out for a cheesy reality show. It was that the show had decided to sprinkle its image-bolstering magic on him.

On Monday's episode, Spicer donned a lime green shirt with ruffled sleeves and performed a salsa to the Spice Girls's “Spice Up With Your Life” with professional partner Lindsay Arnold. (In a prerecorded introduction, Spicer noted his time in the White House was “tumultuous” and that he felt it was finally time to have some fun.) The judges, however, were not impressed with Spicer's dance skills and awarded him 12 points out of 30, the second-lowest score of the night.

Some fans of the show — well aware that its inspirational storylines and gentle edits have helped humanize contentious personalities from Kate Gosselin to Rick Perry — complained loudly, as did high-profile ABC personnel. “I deeply abhor this decision by the company I work for and truly love,” tweeted “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunner Krista Vernoff. Even the show’s affable host, Tom Bergeron, released a statement suggesting he was disappointed by a choice as political as Spicer, who will compete against “Queer Eye” co-host Karamo Brown, former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis and country singer Lauren Alaina, among others.

“Dancing” executive producer Andrew Llinares says he has no fear of politicizing the competition. “We’re excited about having a show that creates a space where people from different backgrounds and different walks of life can come together in a really fun competition,” he said. “That’s really the focus.”

The successful formula behind "Dancing With the Stars," which has aired in more than 50 countries, is to capture as many audience demographics as possible by mirroring those demographics in the cast. The ideal, producers say, is to craft a season that three generations of a family can watch together, and each member of the family will be excited by at least one competitor — whether it's Bristol Palin, Rick Fox or Florence Henderson, to name three of Season 11's mixed bag.

It’s “creating the best dinner party possible, where you have 12 different people . . . that you wouldn’t necessarily ever think of together,” said longtime casting director Deena Katz. “You want some of those people who are in the zeitgeist, but you want some of those people that were touchstones that you remember from your favorite sitcom.”

Initially, some celebrities hesitated to be seen dancing the Viennese waltz on live TV in a bedazzled costume and aggressive spray tan. On the series premiere, a seizure-inducing kaleidoscope of sparkly purple, orange and blue graphics welcomed the audience before Bergeron introduced what he called “a competition like you have never seen before: Tonight, we’ve got six stars, six professional dancers and two pivotal words — ballroom dancing.”

“Before that scares you off, let’s meet our competitors!” co-host Lisa Canning chimed in.

Indeed, the ABC executives who were so eager to find their own “American Idol” were nonetheless skittish about how viewers would react to ballroom dancing. It turned out they were captivated — not just by the spectacle of amateurs competing in dance but also the grueling physicality of the rehearsal scenes, the personal story arcs of battling demons or overcoming challenges, and the unapologetic escapism of a two-hour block of television in which the biggest crisis might involve nailing the footwork for the cha-cha.

About 22 million people tuned in to the Season 1 finale. When a debate raged over whether soap star Kelly Monaco really deserved to win over “Seinfeld” supporting player John O’Hurley, producers mounted a rematch two months later, and nearly 11 million viewers watched. The network moved the show to the middle of the regular season.

“It was scary to suddenly start playing with the big kids,” Katz said. But “Dancing” was ready. About 27 million viewers saw pop singer Drew Lachey triumph over retired Super Bowl champion Jerry Rice in the second season finale. “We were all like, ‘Holy cow — this wasn’t a one-hit wonder.’ ”

Katz’s phone soon started ringing with stars eager to join. Actress Lisa Rinna, whom Katz said at first “was a little afraid” when she was asked to do Season 2, ended up so pleased that she enlisted her husband, former “L.A. Law” star Harry Hamlin, for Season 3. Agents told Katz that the show had become a coveted stop for clients during TV pilot season because the relentless tabloid attention — especially for supposed romances between pro dancers and their partners — could put a faded star back on Hollywood’s radar.

Quentin Tarantino rediscovered Cloris Leachman during Season 7 and offered her a role in “Inglourious Basterds.” Kirstie Alley took second-place honors in Season 12 and shortly after landed a new sitcom. Alfonso Ribeiro, previously best known from the ’90s sitcom “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” broke out as the winner of Season 19 to find a lucrative new relationship with ABC hosting “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Country music radio personality Bobby Bones, who won Season 27, calls the show “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.” He had zero dance experience but thinks that helped viewers connect to his journey.

“There’s a real boldness to doing something you’re bad at,” said Bones, who gained about 250,000 Instagram followers on his path to victory. “The exposure was a big deal, but for me, exposure was maybe secondary to the fact that it was something new for me to try.”

Radio host Adam Carolla told Katz that he joined the sixth season because the offer scared him and that’s how he knew he had to do it. And the winning celebrities take tremendous pride in hoisting the garish Mirror Ball Trophy.

“None of these people need us in their real lives — they all have careers, they’re not going to be ballroom dancers when this is over,” Katz said. “There’s something really charming about how much they care really just for this Mirror Ball.”

Of course, for some participants, the stakes are higher: They've come looking for redemption. And it's no secret that, unless you have some truly self-sabotaging tendencies, it's almost impossible to get a bad edit on "Dancing With the Stars."

“They are able to ensure that you may look slightly silly, but you’ll never really humiliate yourself. It’s a Nerf environment,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson, an early Season 3 evictee, told Slate in 2016. Slate’s Laura Bennett pronounced the show “our culture’s foremost celebrity image rehabilitation machine, the easiest way for stars to rise from the ashes when they have something they want the public to forget.”

The “redemption” slot is a treasured one on “Dancing,” for personalities hoping to win America’s forgiveness by showing their more sensitive and relatable sides — Paula Deen, after she was sued for racial discrimination; Ryan Lochte, after he was accused of fabricating a claim of being robbed at the Rio Olympics; former congressman Tom DeLay, after he was indicted on charges from a campaign finance investigation. Hope Solo, Mischa Barton and Jerry Springer also danced to improve troubled reputations.

Even contestants who aren’t fleeing a scandal have seen their images shined up by the show. MJ Santilli, who runs the reality competition website Mjsbigblog, points to Kelly Osbourne, daughter of Ozzy and Sharon, best known for her stint on MTV’s “The Osbournes,” who placed third in Season 9 after a foot injury. Once dismissed as a reality-TV has-been, “her stint on the show gave her a sheen of being a survivor, a strong person, someone who persevered,” Santilli said. “The show can do that, and I think a lot of stars hope for that.”

“Dancing” rarely fixates on the negative. The celebrity gets to choose exactly how much they want to share in the prerecorded scenes, and the producers are willing to focus on more ingratiating storylines, such as recovering from an injury, in the case of DeLay, or a recent weight loss, in the case of Deen.

After all, the producers say, the point is to serve up two hours of pure entertainment — although it’s hard to imagine viewers feeling like they have escaped from the real world if they see someone like Sean Spicer back on their TV screens. For all the troublesome personalities the show has taken on, Spicer is the most politically polarizing thus far — a choice that, in our ever more fractious climate, could put “Dancing’s” giddy, goofy buoyancy to the test.

But if executives have any qualms, they’re not letting it show.

“The fact that the show has been on for 27 seasons, it must be doing something right,” Llinares said. “Our job as TV producers is to make the audience feel something, and I think this is a show that makes people feel joy.”