Andy Dehnart is a journalist and critic who publishes the reality television news site reality blurred.
The show’s most divisive casting ever came this past Wednesday, when ABC revealed that former White House press secretary Sean Spicer was one of the 12 cast members who’d compete on Season 28, collecting at least $125,000, the show’s base pay. This is not simply a cynical ratings grab: After all, Spicer does not have a large fan base that will flock to an atrophying show. And yet, Spicer is still the quintessential “Dancing With the Stars” contestant because his presence generated a reaction. Outrage is attention, and what the “Dancing” producers know how to do best is excavate pop culture’s archives to find cast members most likely to generate strong reactions.
“Dancing with the Stars” might be a silly competition, but it has provided a clear opportunity to wrestle with how, exactly, we should treat those who’ve enabled President Trump. Should someone with an indisputable record of deceiving — or attempting to deceive — the American public be allowed a cheerful platform on a Disney-owned network to rehabilitate his image?
Spicer is a critical test case, but it’s not because he had a political job. He’s not the first political figure nor Republican to dance on ABC’s Monday nights — pre-conviction former House majority leader Tom DeLay and pre-Trump administration Rick Perry both competed on the show.
Spicer isn’t even the first former member of Trump’s administration to exit the White House and reemerge on reality television. That was Omarosa Manigault Newman, the breakout villain on Season One of Trump’s show “The Apprentice,” who landed almost immediately on the first season of “Celebrity Big Brother” after she left her White House job.
Her casting generated headlines but not the same anger, perhaps because the CBS reality competition show is frequently a toxic, racist mess. Newman’s job at the White House was always vaguely defined, making it difficult to blame her for specific transgressions. And it’s more difficult to be acutely angry at someone who regretted being “complicit with this White House deceiving this nation” and called her former boss a racist after she left.
Spicer’s job, though, extended beyond the normal spin cycle and into full, dizzying fabrication. He represents something particularly insidious: the miserable goon who dimmed the gas lights and then shrugged, acting as if he was a mere messenger, not someone actively constructing a fallacious facade in front of the president.
So how should we react to him? “Dancing With the Stars” has so far offered two unsavory possibilities.
Karamo Brown, who’ll be competing alongside Spicer on Season 28, became one of the breakout stars of Netflix’s “Queer Eye” because of his ability to connect with people and skillfully deploy empathy and compassion. In an interview with “Access Hollywood,” Brown called Spicer “a good guy, really sweet guy,” and he also tweeted, “I’m excited to sit down w/ him and engage in a respectful conversations. Only way things get better is if we try to educate those who have different POV than us.”
Meanwhile, host Tom Bergeron, a frequent Trump critic, said he wanted “Dancing With the Stars” to be “a joyful respite from our exhausting political climate,” then joked on “Good Morning America” that, “Sean will be in charge of assessing audience size.” In a statement explaining that Bergeron disagreed with the decision to cast Spicer, Bergeron kowtowed to his bosses’ authority and insisted he’s just the host of this “kitschy charm” fest.
These attempts to play off Spicer’s presence on the show have produced mixed results. Brown’s brand is positivity and connection, but by suggesting that he can connect with anyone, even Spicer, he ignited a social media furor and ultimately deleted his Twitter account. Bergeron, by contrast, received some credit for his dissent, even though his position that culture is a politics-free zone is itself a form of spin that obscures the extent to which culture, even reality TV, is an illustration of who we are and what we believe. If we believe actions have consequences, they can’t just be danced away.
Whether Spicer is eliminated in the first round or hangs on until the finale doesn’t matter, because he gave “Dancing With the Stars” exactly what it wanted: an attention-grabbing controversy to kick off its season that might convince people to watch, boosting an old show’s declining ratings. The reality in Hollywood is the same as in Washington: Money usually wins.