America's Joan of Arc returned to the airwaves Tuesday night, this time not as a bumbling sideshow, but with her stake aflame as the main attraction on center stage.
After a near decade long trial by fire as Simon Cowell's hapless sparring partner on American Idol, Paula Abdul stepped into the limelight on her own as the chief jurist of Live To Dance, CBS's new competition show and the latest entry into the surprisingly durable TV dance genre. Since her exit from Idol, the question has loomed, after walking away from the biggest show on television, the show which gave her one of the greatest career second acts in recent memory, what would Paula next do with herself? Would she try to reinvent herself for a third time in her career—showing up the ditsy reputation she earned on Idol? Or would she go in a completely new direction, leaving the whole mean judge/nice judge dynamic behind.
As of last night the answer seems to be, Paula has decided to double down on being Paula—hyper-dramatic, gushy, tongue-tied Paula, staging a house to house battle with emotions at every turn.
Throughout the past decade, the torments of Paula Abdul became perhaps America's leading topic of cultural conversation. In eight years at the Idol judge's desk, the faded ‘90s pop star re-established herself as the nation's defender of weak and marginally talented, waving her hands to protect off-key singers from the ravages of the vicious ogre from across the seas, Simon Cowell. Many a faltering singer silently uttered a prayer to the blessed mother Paula, to pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
But her caring, her passion for the singers, took a toll. A nation gaped on as she fumbled for words, diabolically mixed metaphors and lay her head on the desk in outrage. And her pain, her passion pushed her even farther—to late arrivals on the set, to the time she reviewed a performance that hadn't yet occurred to myriad off-stage incidents that supplied a constant plotline, the What's Going On With Paula theme.
• Watch Paula Abdul’s Craziest MomentsAmazingly, as spectacular as the flame-outs seemed to be, as often times as the critics declared Fox could no longer allow her on to serve in the judicial branch of reality television, her bond to the audience grew only stronger. Paula became uniquely bulletproof, each misstep taken as a sign of how much she was suffering for her children. And when finally her end came under circumstances never completely explained, a bit of blood clung to the Idol set as the audiences suspected that their Paula, the heart of the show had been pushed aside. Her homecoming at last year's finale provoked the longest most tearful standing ovation Idol had ever seen.
But how to go from being the suffering minor half, essentially the straight man of buddy act to become the feature player herself? Without a Cowell to roll her eyes at and slap on the pectorals, many wondered whether Paula's act would resonate. When buddy acts have split up in the past, it is rare that show biz finds much of a place for the straighter partner. When the beloved comedy duo of Martin and Lewis broke up, Dean Martin survived by essentially reinventing himself in his ex-partner's gagging role.
For Paula however, as we saw Tuesday night, stepping into Simon's shoes was never an option. And so she doubled down on sainthood, joining a show where the trials of Paula Abdul could become the main act, mean judges banished from the premises entirely.
There she was once again in all her Paulaosity, gushing ("You are this beautiful young talent who is going to be moving to the heavens above of greatness") flailing for the words ("L.A. has opened up their hearts and left their hearts on the dance floor”), getting choked up and putting her head down on the desk to recover.
In the dance competition genre, however, Paula has found a world where her empathetic suffering is not merely a consolation prize but a philosophy of life. If American Idol and its devastating critiques live in the TV equivalent of Darth Vader's Death Star, dance shows exist in Smurf Village. Led by So You Think You Can Dance (to which Live To Dance owes tons), the dance genre emphasizes the supportive, the encouraging, the art for arts sake rather than a Darwinian fight to stardom. In its first episode, Live To Dance takes these themes and wraps them around Paula like she is Lady Liberty draped in a battle-torn flag.
Not only are we treated to Paula's heartfelt speeches on the power of dance, ("What dance is, what it does for your spirit, what it does for your mind. What it does for your body. What it does for the entire world") but we are also given testimonials about the healing power of Paula to intervene in the lives of the sick and the suffering. We meet a woman, now a dance instructor, tells of how she when she was young and recuperating from a car accident, face riddled with stitches, she was taken backstage at a Paula Abdul concert to meet the Lady Herself.
"Do you share the words Paula shared with you with your students?" Live's host asks.
Elsewhere, the show is a somewhat tattered version of the threadbare performance competition genre. In an attempt to give the show an epic scale, the auditions are held in a massive traveling LTD Dome. Shot frequently from the air, sitting alone in stadium parking lots, the Dome resembles a Goodyear service center on a slow day. Frequent mentions of the $500,000 prize, towards which surviving contestants are told they have taken a step closer, only pull us out of the thrill of the performances themselves, cheapening the effect. (Particularly when one looks at some of LTD's 20 person dance troops and does the math at what $500,000 comes to per head, minus taxes.)
There aren't many twists left untried in the performance competition genre, but Live to Dance tries to find what scraps it can. Instead of having each judge explain their verdict, they each secretly push a Yes or No button and then sit for what feels like hours staring blankly at the contestants and honing Paula's natural awkwardness to a fever pitch as they wait for red or yellow lights on the front of the desk to illuminate and reveal the vote totals with a tasteful buzzer.
The audience is then offered a part in the proceedings, told that if they disagree with a judge's verdict, they can chant the melodious "Change Your Mind!" until the judges cave and switch their vote.
What is truly amazing about the dance genre, however, is as wacky as the set might be, as misbegotten as the twists are, when you see a 9-year-old prancing and twirling across the floor like he's just eaten a nuclear power plant for breakfast, whatever, the setting, it still just takes one's breath away. Seeing a few more grandmothers and groups of young girls do it and one can almost believe in miracles and you can believe once again, in the power of Paula.
Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.