"It's good to be alive. And better to be dancing."
That was the indomitable, ebullient, prodigious Valerie Harper talking about Dancing With the Stars, precisely summing up why what just may be the silliest show on TV is also one that should not be dismissed away as just that: silliness.
Over the years Dancing With the Stars has brought the world of pop culture many gifts. It brought us Nancy Grace combing an Irish dancer’s chest hair. It brought us Apple genius Steve Wozniak doing the worm. It brought us Andy Dick, of all people, making emotional amends with his daughter through dance—really. It gave us Kirstie Alley back, reignited the career of a Spice Girl, and dressed up Bristol Palin as a panda-bear furry.
This season introduces an epically absurd (as in BRILLIANT) new cast including Valerie Harper, Snooki, Glee’s Amber Riley, former Scientologist Leah Remini, Saved by the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Together they proved why this wacky, bedazzled Liberace fever dream of a TV show is one that we should never stop watching.
To begin with, the series wisely stopped with the idea that all its stars should have zero dance experience in order to compete. (Figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, boy-bander Drew Lachey, and Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey are all former winners.) Sure, we tune in for the crazy, but there’s got to be some actual talent to keep the show from being a total farce.
This year, that that comes in the form of Riley, who for the past four years on Glee has been paid a lot of money to do full-scale, intricately choreographed production numbers. Putting her on the same playing field as Nye is almost cruel. But who cares? She was a crackling firecracker on the dance floor, and seeing her Glee cast mates explode with, well, glee after she was done was just about the most adorable thing on TV this year.
As wise as producers have become to hire contestants who are going to be the show’s dancers—count in that group pop star Christina Milian and High School Musical-turned-Broadway actor Corbin Bleu, who was also very good Monday night—they’ve become just as skilled at hiring entertainers.
That’s where someone like Remini, loose lipped and sassy, comes in. For all the “I’m here to transform my life through dance” contestants who come through the ballroom, it’s refreshing to see someone who approaches the whole experience with the comic frankness it deserves. Her two goals, she says, are “to lose weight” and “not look silly.” Fair enough. Plus, she’s friends with Jennifer Lopez, whom she dragged with her to the taping, which is just fun.
But beyond the talent and the entertainment, Dancing With the Stars has lasted all this time because of its absurdity. And there was plenty of that Monday night.
There was the time Jessie Spano from Saved by the Bell/Nomi Malone from Showgirls (Berkley) performed a contemporary dance to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and moved the entire audience to tears. It was weird. And it happened. (Side cuteness: her partner, Val Chmerkovskiy, told her that he learned English by watching Saved by the Bell.
Things happen to you while watching Dancing With the Stars, like watching professional dad-joke teller Bill Engvall do a foxtrot and thinking to yourself, damn, that man is elegant. Or Bill Nye the Science Guy is completely charming, and you wonder if this whole time he was secretly the world’s coolest person, not the geekiest.
Then Harper performs. My God, Valerie Harper. To bring you up to speed, Harper was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor in January and given just months to live. Nine months later, she’s performing on Dancing With the Stars. Her clip package was full of inspirational “live life to the fullest” advice, and then she starts dancing and flashes the massive smile that can be seen only on someone who is doing just that, and you begin weeping. Weeping.
And only on Dancing With the Stars will a segment like that be followed by Snooki. Mere minutes after Valerie Harper talks about defying her death-sentence cancer diagnosis, Snooki ruminates on defying her reputation as a “hot mess.” This is Dancing With the Stars, where she who played Rhoda Morgenstern and she who blacked out from too many Jäger bombs on a Jersey Shore beach are given the same amount of respect.
It makes no sense at all. And it makes for great TV.