So You Think You Can Dance's Failed Reinvention

Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance began its seventh season by radically reinventing itself—but the changes haven’t worked and, going into its finale Wednesday, viewers have fled.

Nigel Lythgoe, Mia Michaels and Adam Shankman judge the competition on "So You Think You Can Dance" on June 17, 2010.(Photo: Mathieu Young / FOX)

At the beginning of its seventh season, So You Think You Can Dance attempted something no competition show of its age has ever done: an extreme makeover.

Over its first five seasons, So You Think You Can Dance grew to become the best network competition series despite having a fraction of American Idol's audience and debuting every year immediately after its Fox sibling. But when the show was given a high-profile fall run for the first time last year, it stumbled. After that misstep, So You Think You Can Dance executive producer and head judge Nigel Lythgoe—who was recently re-hired to produce and re-work American Idol after a two-season absence as its showrunner—announced he would overhaul SYTYCD, as it’s often called, when it returned in late May.

After the judges announced a sudden rule change, host Cat Deeley wittily and pointedly observed, “We just make this show up as we go along.”

The changes were radical. After the auditions, a group of 11, not the usual 20, moved on to be finalists competing on the live shows. They were to be paired each week with popular SYTYCD alumni instead of with each other. (In earlier seasons, finalists had permanent pairings until the Top 10, when they were randomly paired each week.) This season, only one person was ousted each week, not two. Also, the judges retained even more power, eliminating contestants all the way until the finale; previously, viewers had all the power after the Top 10. And finally, judge Mary Murphy was replaced by choreographer Mia Michaels on the judging panel, where she joined Lythgoe and Hairspray director Adam Shankman.

The season concludes this week, and looking back, it hasn’t gone well. Fox is aware that fans aren’t as thrilled as they once were. Last week, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly told me that changes, like replacing one of the judges, “stir the passions of a very passionate audience.” Some of that audience has fled: While ratings are up from last fall, they have fallen compared to last summer. The penultimate results show last Thursday lost another 10 percent of its viewers for a season low.

Reilly suggested airing back-to-back seasons last year may have had a negative impact: “Three chapters in a row, I don’t know whether that’s had an effect or not. But it’s still very strong with the younger audience; the show is quite young.” He said that “like a lot of competition shows, that’s cycle to cycle, it could easily go back up the next one. They put on a great show every week.”

He’s right—despite the changes, it has remained a good show, thanks mostly to the dancing. But what has gone wrong with the competition itself? The changes themselves seemed workable on its surface. Bringing back popular dancers would look more like pandering if they weren’t so much fun to watch, and pairing them with up-and-coming contestants would challenge the contestants to be even better. With more power, the judges could continue to make sure the show wasn’t reduced to a popularity contest.

But So You Think You Can Dance has still suffered. A plague of injuries left the (arguably) most-popular dancer, Alex Wong, out for the season. Wong’s early exit just exacerbated and highlighted the other changes. All-stars sometimes out-danced their partners on a stage that, ever since its makeover last fall, continued to swallow the dancers in its giant ribs that reach from the floor to the rafters. After each episode, viewers searched Google for clues about Mary Murphy’s absence and took to Twitter to complain to Lythgoe, generally. (He tends to fight back.)

Making matters worse, last fall, the generally insufferable Adam Shankman joined the judging panel full-time, resulting in the end of one of the show’s better features, a rotating third guest judge who would bring completely different insight than, say, Murphy’s enthusiasm or Lythgoe’s occasional homophobia. Now, the judges, while passionate as always, seem to have more time than ever to ramble. More significantly, they have started using their power arbitrarily, opting to send no one home one week, which seemed like a ploy to save their favorite Billy Bell, who wasn’t viewers’ favorite. After the judges announced that sudden rule change, host Cat Deeley wittily and pointedly observed, “We just make this show up as we go along.”

As they made it up, ratings fell, with the results show being beaten by CSI repeats and dropping 17 percent among young viewers week-to-week at one point. That’s when even more tweaks began. Once the finalists had been reduced to eight, the show changed its just-changed formula, adding dances that paired finalists with each other.

Worst of all, SYTYCD lost its soul: Mary Murphy.

Murphy’s enthusiastic screams and invitations for some dancers to board the “hot tamale train” may have annoyed some viewers, but they were always accompanied by insightful criticism and praise that would put any American Idol judge to shame. She helped bring the series attention in a Simon Cowell, did-you-see-that kind of way, except in her thoughtfulness she is nothing like Simon as a judge.

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Murphy's replacement, Mia Michaels (who'd actually quit the show, temporarily, last fall), is a very different judge. Murphy’s passion comes through as warmth and enthusiasm, while Michaels’ often seems colder and unforgiving. Critiquing one finalist, she brutally compared him to Wong: “My god, I miss Alex right now.” She apologized the next night for being “a little harsh and insensitive,” and attributed it to “tough love,” but there’s a little too much toughness and not enough love left on the panel without Murphy.

Before the season began, Murphy told me that not being a full-time judge was a “mutual” decision because of her workload (“I just sat on chairs and sat in airplanes,” she said of her previous year). She’d be placed “back into the pool” of choreographers who get a few weeks' notice if they’re available, and was looking forward to using “some cutting-edge technology” in her routines, adding, “I want to do something a little different than” she did in early seasons when she was a choreographer, not a judge.

But Murphy never appeared. And her recent Twitter posts reveal that she is not happy about that, as she’s encouraging people to Twitter-harass Lythgoe.

Fox’s Kevin Reilly acknowledged Murphy’s passionate fans but told me, “Mia has her fans and supporters, too.”

Lythgoe wasn’t made available for an interview for this story, but he admitted to the media after Thursday’s results show that there were too many changes. Lythgoe called the response “frustrating” and said “I want to get it right for the audience, but at the same time, I don’t want to let down dance, and this season the dance situation has really been tremendous.” He plans to revert back to the previous Top 20 format but still bring in all-stars once it’s down to 10.

Lythgoe is now in charge of giving American Idol its own makeover for its return in January, and his acknowledged failure to rework SYTYCD may offer lessons in what to change and what to leave alone. But even more than Idol, So You Think You Can Dance has always been Lythgoe’s baby, so let us hope his attention won’t be divided at this pivotal moment in the dance show’s life.

What remained about So You Think You Can Dance this season is that it was consistently a showcase for excellent dancing and very little American Idol-style nonsense. The judges don’t pretend to fight; the dancers’ group numbers are often spectacular instead of laughable; the guest performances don’t seem like filler; the music is pre-recorded but both young and relevant; and the host doesn’t try to make the show about herself, making an Emmy nomination for Cat Deeley now three years overdue.

But the series needs to find its soul again, and it should start by inviting Mary Murphy back and pretending most of the last two seasons never happened.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.