Producer Nigel Lythgoe shows he's no Simon Cowell in a flat-footed kickoff to ''So You Think You Can Dance,'' his ''American Idol'' for hoofers

By Michael Slezak
Updated July 20, 2005 at 12:00 PM EDT
So You Think You Can Dance: Ray Mickshaw

”So You Think You Can Dance”: The judges fail

Like, oh my God, did you catch that show on Fox last night where they were auditioning backup dancers for Britney Spears’ Onyx Multiplex/Restaurant Tour? It was way cool. They had to cut some, like, totally weird people, like some guy who did rhythmic gymnastics (whatever), and also a chick with enormous fake breasts and even bigger gums, but all the girls who had blond hair and a flat stomach, and danced to ”Toxic” or ”(You Drive Me) Crazy,” made it to the next round. Even when the producers admitted they weren’t that good at dancing!

Okay, so maybe that’s the most simplistic, jaded (and possibly unfair) way to portray So You Think You Can Dance, Fox’s American Idol for hoofers, but it’s also mostly true. This isn’t to say the show’s premiere episode didn’t provide a moderately enjoyable summer diversion. But even putting its bloated length aside — two hours was most certainly 60 minutes too many — So You Think still pales in comparison to Idol, not to mention its other reality-competition predecessor, Dancing With the Stars, on several levels.

For starters — and I’m pretty sure someday I’ll look back on this sentence with regret — the show’s judges are vastly inferior to Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson Oh, sure, I could go to the Fox website and look up the names of the dark-haired guy and blond lady who sat alongside Nigel Lythgoe (more on him in a minute), but how can I justify the time and effort required when neither one could be bothered to offer up a single decisive, clever opinion during the entire New York audition process? Ask yourself this: At this exact second, could you ID either one of them in a police lineup with absolute certainty? Such lackluster efforts are almost (and I emphasize ”almost”) enough to make a boy long for some loopy Paula-isms. (So You Think will be chock-full of ’em when Abdul joins the show in some sort of capacity as a roving correspondent and dance coach in the next few weeks. You’ve been warned!)

What’s worse, the fact that two-thirds of the judges were on autopilot (or otherwise occupied during the Chicago auditions) meant more air time for Lythgoe — who happens to be executive producer of Idol. As Simon might have put it, the crabby Brit’s performance ”was rather like watching a failed dinner-theater actor trying to audition for Martin Scorsese by shouting a Hamlet monologue through his hotel door.” Nonetheless, a deficit of wit, charm, and charisma didn’t seem to deter Lythgoe from indulging himself in the deluded fantasy that he could be Simon Cowell 2.0. (To paraphrase a great Bette Davis line, ”Y’aren’t never gonna be an American TV star, Blanche!”) And we haven’t even gotten to Lythgoe’s unabashed sleaziness. Telling belly dancer Isis she’d made it to the next round without seeing her dance, or gruesomely ogling Kamilah Barrett while growling, ”For some reason, you’re one of my favorites,” were stunning low points on what’s seemingly being marketed as a family series. Then again, I guess it’s never too early to sit your young daughter down and explain to her the finer points of sexual harassment in the workplace.

So You Think also lacks the joy of the unexpected On Idol, half the fun of the auditions is wondering if (maybe even hoping) some Mariah lookalike will open her mouth and sound like a house cat getting an electrolysis treatment, or that some kid who walks in looking like a math-club reject could turn out to be pop music’s unlikeliest heartthrob.

Such suspense wonder is badly lacking on So You Think. I can count on one hand the number of performers whose success or failure with Lythgoe & Co. caught me off guard. Sure, that one chick was a little bitter when she observed that So You Think‘s tricky group choreography rounds are set up to reward ”a bunch of white people who have a lot of money” for dance lessons, but there was a kernel of truth in her delusion.

Which brings me to my next point: Why so many Britney wannabes? I know the cloning thriller The Island opens this week, but I was still a little freaked out by the similarities in look, wardrobe, and dance style exhibited by Cheryl Texiera, Melissa Vella, Ashley Purl, Andrea Savelli, and Lisa Deschaaf — except that Vella and Irish stepper Purl exhibited a tad more star quality. (Still, I can’t complain about Deschaaf’s trip to Hollywood, since it meant getting to see strangely dressed host Lauren ”nice bustier” Sanchez mistakenly refer to the contestant’s fiancé as her father. Ouch!)

Don’t get me wrong, now, I have nothing against attractive blond women — or seeing a massive pack of them storm this series’ finals. But when Lythgoe repeatedly tell contestants that they’ve made it to Hollywood instead of more talented dancers because he’s ”casting a show,” it’s maddening. Yes, by now, most of us know ”reality” is a very subjective term in the ”reality TV” universe, but if you’re fudging the judging to suit some kind of casting quotient, where the heck is the diversity?

Oh, and on that subject, why is 19 Entertainment terrified of effeminate men? Forgive me for both going off on a tangent and perpetuating a stereotype, but if you’re working in the arts, you’re probably going to meet more than your fair share of gay men, effeminate men, and effeminate gay men. (For the uninitiated, these characteristics can be mutually exclusive.) Would it be so horrible, then, if a raging queen of, say, Jack McFarland proportions were allowed to advance to the part of So You Think or Idol where the results lie in voters’ hands? You see, I have a lot of faith that the viewing public is significantly less interested in the sexual orientation of contestants than in their actual talent. And that’s why Lythgoe’s exchange with contestant Anthony Bryant really irritated me.

Does anyone care if the kid leapt around with a giant ribbon in his hands, or whether or not he seemed ”masculine enough” in his partnered dance? Lythgoe and the other judges agreed he was ”technically one of the best boys we’ve seen in New York.” On that alone, he should have made it to Hollywood. I honestly wanted to hurl something at my TV when Lythgoe informed Bryant that his rhythmic-gymnastics routine might ”put boys off from voting.” Well, maybe some boys, Nigel, but I’d bet good money that roughly 10 percent would be speed-dialing up a storm for a contestant who set off their gaydar. And there might even be a few others out there confident enough in their masculinity that their whole world wouldn’t be turned upside down by the sight of a little innocent male prancing. Argh!

Now in my mind, it would’ve been another matter altogether if one of the judges had sent Anthony packing because the entire audience could see exactly what he was packing in those insanely wrong, skin-tight shorts of his. (Um, note to self: I did not need to see that!) But enough of this tangent, okay?

Lastly, the bad dancers aren’t bad enough to be funny I admit: I’m not a huge fan of the early weeks of Idol, when misguided karaoke queens get their hearts, and singing dreams, smashed on national TV, but there are some auditions that make me laugh in spite of myself. None of So You Think‘s so-called worst of the worst — ocean lifeguard Jason Maschi, popping-locking queen Pamela Hargrove, and heavyset Eugene Gaskin Jr. — are making it into Alvin Ailey in this lifetime, but they’d catch your eye in a good way if they were, say, sharing a dance floor with you at your cousin’s wedding. Heck, even the ”moody walking about” from the Ukrainian acrobats was kinda nifty, in a bad Kylie Minogue video sort of way.

Not counting the Eastern European quartet, I’ve already got four early front-runners on my list: Maricza Valentin, because any woman who chooses dancing over her spouse is taking it scary seriously; Brandon Jones, for showing us that chubby boys can get down with the get-down; Ashley Dawson, because her interpretive dance to that drums-only accompaniment was so good that I’d have paid extra to see more of it; and Nicholas Gades, for subtly reinterpreting Patrick Swayze’s guh-guh from Dirty Dancing in a unique, hip-hop fashion. If that kind of cool keeps popping up in Nicholas’ routines, it could be mighty hard for anybody to put him in a corner.

What did you think? How does So You Think You Can Dance compare to its cousin, American Idol? And were you as shocked as me to see Dancing With the Stars judge Carrie Ann Inaba pop up as a So You Think choreographer?

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