On the premiere of Dancing with the Stars season 26, it was announced that the season would only be four weeks long. And we are not amused.
Like a toddler distracted by a shiny new toy, ABC has shunted Dancing with the Stars from its spring schedule for a few months of American Idol… but finding themselves with a spare month in the schedule, they made Season 26 an all-athletes edition that’s only four weeks long.
There have been a litany of poor decisions about DWTS over the years… guest judges, Most Memorable Year themes, dance styles the pros don’t even know, and that one time they let an Olympic gold medalist in ballroom dancing (on ice) compete and win a season. But creating a four-week season is truly the most bone-headed move they’ve ever made, because it flies in the face of the entire point of the show.
Dancing with the Stars has always been about The Journey™. After ten weeks spent on the show, both the couples and the viewers are emotionally invested in the show. That’s why the finale is always a mess of waterworks: we have witnessed true friendship grow between the partners, and no one wants it to end.
After four weeks of competition, though, who cares? Week 4 is usually around the time that I can finally remember the names of all the remaining contestants, when the level of dance is elevated and story arcs emerge. Instead, we’ll be crowning winners whose names we’ve barely learned, honoring those who already could dance instead of the ones who slowly improved over several months. DWTS has been having an increasing problem with ringers taking the title (not that we’re bitter about last season, or anything), but at least ten weeks offers underdogs a chance to catch up.
It’s small wonder that none of the pros normally considered A-listers (the Chmerkovskiys, Derek, Mark, Cheryl, Peta) are competing this season. Why would they bother pausing whatever lucrative tours or shows they’re on for only four weeks? While this would present a really cool opportunity to get to know some of the fresh faces – Alan, Jenna, Artem, Gleb – there’s not much they can do in only four weeks. And if we crown a new professional winner, won’t that victory feel a bit hollow, always coming with an asterisk?
The decision to have an all-athletes season now becomes much clearer: it’s nothing to do with the recent Olympics, and everything to do with having contestants that already have stamina going in, instead of building it up over time. That’s what’s allowing DWTS to do two dances per contestant on Week 2; presumably, they’ll be doing the usual four dances in the finale despite it only being Week 4.
It’s worth noting that even in an abridged season, DWTS knows enough to include team dances, which are always a highlight. But even this will be tarnished by the lack of build-up. A big reason the team dances are fun is because it’s an occasion to watch people we’ve come to care about over the last month interact and work together. If we don’t even remember the names of half the team members, there won’t be much of a thrill in them hanging out together and exchanging quips. The success of many of DWTS’s hokier moments is being taken for granted, but it’s all due to the time everyone invests into a given season.
The frustrating part is that the cast is actually quite promising, and one can see how well this would play out in a full season. Will Mirai Nagasu learn to Be Vulnerable™ and Open Up™? Will Adam Rippon find some humility? Will Arike put on proper shoes and Become a Lady™? Will Chris Mazdzer wax his chest? And most intriguing of all, will Tonya Harding find redemption or remain a villain?
Given ten weeks, these arcs would have played out at a comfortable pace, and provided for some excellent dancing besides. But as things stand, it’s doubtful anyone will get any kind of meaningful personal growth. So we’re here to see some frantic dancing that will pretty much be a formality, as it comes down to which athlete can mobilize the largest fanbase. Pre-existing fanbases have always been an important factor, but they can be mitigated over time if a celebrity really connects with viewers – think James Hinchcliffe, Rumer Willis, or JR Martinez. Now, the accusation always hurled at DWTS – it’s no more than a popularity contest – is coming true.
As readers of Hypable know, we love handicapping the contestants, spending two months trying to figure out who will make the finals, and then who will win. In a good season, there will be half a dozen contestants vying for the finals; by the time the finals roll around, it’s (hopefully) down to two or three contenders and maybe a dark horse. This season, we won’t even bother – we don’t know who’ll be in the finals in three weeks’ time, nor do we care. If we had to guess, Mirai and Adam will be in the finals, joined by Josh and Chris, with Tonya as a potential spoiler… but that’s based purely on who didn’t fall flat on their faces on Monday,
The elimination of contestants – once enough to fuel an entire hour of television every Tuesday – now becomes an afterthought. The disconnect was on stark display on Monday’s premiere. Tom and Erin return to their tried and true script: “The toughest elimination!” “Can’t believe we have to say good-bye!” “For the love of mirrorballs, it is really damn tragic we’re kicking two people out today!!!” And no one – not the pros, not the celebrities, and certainly not this viewer – cared all that much.
The Week 1 elimination is a necessary culling that never gets emotional reactions. The show can’t just fast-forward its emotional arc and expect everyone to keep up. This will be a recurring problem. When couples are cut in the quarterfinals, or semifinals, it’s gut-wrenching. When Week 2 is the midpoint of the season, and Week 3 the semifinal, no one will care. As DWTS has moved away from being strictly about dancing, the worst thing that can happen to the show is people not caring.
The numbers bear this out: the season premiere was watched by only 8.5 million people. That is over 20% lower than any other DWTS season premiere, and may be in contention as the least-watched episode of DWTS ever. Hopefully that will prove to ABC that they always need to give DWTS a full and proper season in the future.
It sounds like blasphemy, but I would rather have no spring season of DWTS than the half-baked “seasonette” we’re getting. Why even bother? Aside from ABC needing something good for May sweeps – and as mentioned, they’re not even getting good ratings out of this stunt.
Are you as disgruntled as me by Seasonette 26 of DWTS? Or do you welcome a smaller time commitment to the show?