Dancing With the Stars (ABC, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) has taught me one important lesson that has nothing to do with fancy footwork. It's this: Never pitch a story with the lead already in mind. When I first proposed writing about ABC's new summer reality series, I thought the angle would be: This is one reality show that's unclear on the concept. Does ABC really think it can steal Fox's American Idol fire with yet another amateur hour, this one based not on ballad-belting on but on … ballroom dancing? What's next, an ice-sculpting competition? A nationally televised sketch-a-thon? Some art forms, I intended to opine, just don't work in the talent-show format.
But after two weeks of watching Dancing With the Stars, I gleefully concede my error. Like the 13.2 million viewers that made last week's first episode the most-watched summer premiere in five years, I'm charmed. Dancing With the Stars is an improbable, goofy delight, more fun to watch than the bombastic American Idol for at least two reasons. The first: Unlike Idol wannabes, contestants on DWTS know they're amateurs. They harbor no fantasies of becoming professional dancers; they just want to learn a new skill, show off a little, and compete for this show's touchingly modest final prize: not a million dollars, not a shot at international stardom, but … a trophy! The fact that we see each contestant perform side-by-side with a professional ballroom dance teacher hammers the show's humility home, giving viewers the sense that, with a few weeks of training, we might be able to fake our own way through a decent cha-cha-cha.
The second reason DWTS makes for better watching than American Idol is purely kinetic: Bad dancing is simply more fun to watch than bad singing is to listen to. Not that all of this show's dancing is bad; the professionals assigned to each celebrity contestant are brilliant at fading gracefully into the woodwork as they showcase the limited talents of their partners. But the choreography and music are another story. Sprightly pop remakes of '70s hits like "Endless Love" and "You're the One That I Want," along with dance moves straight from the cover of a bodice-ripper, raise this show's cheese factor to somewhere between Muenster and Limburger.
Several participants are reality-TV veterans who have been kicking around the circuit for some time now, like grizzled carnies. Rachel Hunter, the former supermodel and ex-wife of Rod Stewart who won the role of Ginger on last season's The Real Gilligan's Island, is the female favorite in the competition so far. Last night panel judge Bruno Tonioli, a choreographer of music videos, praised Hunter's enthusiastic, if slightly galumphing, rumba to the skies: "Rachel, you have the potential of becoming a love goddess of the dance floor. Rita Hayworth. Think about that." Insatiable fame-slag Trista Sutter, a former contestant on both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette who later married her chosen suitor, the hapless Ryan Sutter, in a multimillion-dollar televised wedding, was the first contestant to be voted off the show last night, after a transcendently unsexy pas de deux with the suavely ponytailed Latin dance pro Louis van Amstel. (Think Nancy Reagan dancing with Fabio.)
My own personal pick to win DWTS's no-doubt dinky trophy in this first six-episode run: John O'Hurley, Seinfeld's J. Peterman, who navigates the show's lurid magenta dance floor with Shatnerian aplomb. O'Hurley seems to have a healthy sense of his own ridiculousness, and he also evinces a gentlemanly affection for his pro partner, the Danish dance champ Charlotte Jorgenson. As they stand around backstage waiting for the judge's ratings or the results from the impossibly complicated audience-voting system, O'Hurley likes to give Jorgenson's upper arms a comforting little rub, as if protecting her from a chill. But it's also hard not to root for Evander Holyfield, the four-time heavyweight champion of the world, whose massive 250-lb. frame serves as a distinct handicap in lighter-than-air dances like the quickstep he bravely attempted last night.
With its peppy DIY aesthetic and unapologetically middlebrow taste, Dancing With The Stars is a frothy, low-impact summer show. It doesn't ask us to keep track of 48 shipwreck survivors or multiple double-agent subplots; it doesn't claim to make us any smarter. It's as sparkly and insubstantial as a sequined cocktail dress, and just as much fun to twirl around in for a while.