Chaz Bono and Carson Kressley party in the ballroom in a fast-paced season 13 premiere

By Annie Barrett
Updated September 20, 2011 at 09:49 AM EDT

It’s a whole new season, DANCMSTRs, and this time that means a whole new Dancing With the Stars set! Everything is HUGE now, there’s a Wheel of Fortune-esque logo on the judges’ table, and the opening credits feature the cast posing “confidently” in an empty theater. It’s much too early to dismiss the show’s new look, but I do already miss the cozy ballroom-in-the-basement feel, the fancy script, and the purple kaleidoscope background patterns that would either give me tremors or leave me comfortably numb, depending on my mood.

I love that Harold Wheeler and his merry band of tricksters get their own official introduction at the top (instead of Tom always having to wing a mention of them an hour and a half in), but the new “parting of the Red Stairs” effect has me very worried that the days of DWTS‘ loving zoom-ins on Enthusiastic Chimes Lady could be over. To be fair, Impeccably Manicured Trumpeter, another band fave, got showcased at the end of the cast’s awkward descent down the steep new stairs. But the shot of him seemed so dark and somber. We could barely see his nails. What is the point?

The crowd’s now arranged on three levels, so that more people can witness the gladiators, but no one has to actually touch each other. The whole thing looks like a more colorful and TRON-ier version of Daddy Warbucks’ mansion in Annie. I think I’m gonna like it here, but I might need more time to adjust to my new adoptive father, Len Goodman. It’s so weird when he wears that one-piece bathing suit in our pool.

Perhaps the craziest new set switch is that the dreaded “celebriquarium” has been replaced by some much higher new living quarters for Brooke Burke-Charvet. No one is happier than I am that we’ll never have to hear or say (or spell, ugh) “celebriquarium” again. But what is this new thing? Is it a skybox? Is it a mezzanine? reader CA suggested calling it the “celebraskyboxmazzaine,” but that doesn’t sound quite right. I’ll workshop some stuff. You let me know.

NEXT: At least one thing hasn’t changed. Drumroll please. Everyone ready?!

Will the judges please reveal their scores? Carrie Ann Inahhhh-ber!

J.R. Martinez and Karina Smirnoff: 22/30 I agree with that olde English cheese ball Len Goodman: “For me, J.R. stands for Just Right.” This guy is the ultimate DWTS contestant — big heart, positive outlook, tragic yet uplifting back story…and he can dance! He and Karina looked so powerful and in sync during the aerial shots of their Viennese waltz, and I liked that she combined the “majestic floor sweeper” move and the “close the song with heads in each other’s hands” move for maximum dramatic and emotional effect. I think J.R. will be the Ty Murray of this season — hardworking guy no one’s ever heard of but then suddenly they LOVE. He’s miles ahead of Ty already in the talent arena. I mean, a week 1 ability to gaze at each audience member as he drifts by? Unheard of!

Chynna Phillips and Tony Dovolani: 22/30 Chynna is so all-around lovely that she was able to kick our beloved and oft-beleaguered Pro Tony in the groin and we all thought it was charming! That’s talent right there. I love that Chynna and J.R. — two of the least buzzed-about Stars going in — tied for the top spot on week 1. Their Viennese waltz was so fluid and balletic that I didn’t even realize how outstanding it was for a debut performance until the dramatic final sweep with Chynna on the floor. “You looked like you were stepping out of a dream straight into my heart!” cried Bruno. (There it is. Welcome back to Bruno’s word bistro, everyone.) I think people are going to love this couple. They are already my second favorite pair because they won the esteemed honor of Len’s first “Seh-vehhhhhhn!” of the season. You know that ancient DWTS adage (that I just made up): Seven on the paddle = Eleven in our hearts.

Hope Solo and Maksim Chmerkovskiy: 21/30 Maks has had so much experience working with athletes that this should be a great partnership. It’s my hope that I won’t even need to focus on his hotness this season, considering his partner is hot enough for the both of them. (In fact, after talking to Maks last week and hearing about how much he hates it when the media focuses on his ass, I’ve decided to try my mightiest to just not mention it at all. I’ll post more about that chat later.) Their Viennese waltz had the pair “connected like glue,” said Carrie Ann. The judges seemed to be more liberal than usual with their “good chemistry” comments during the premiere, which probably bodes well for the season. Speaking of chemistry: In keeping with this new no-ass policy, Maks kept his post-dance affection for Tom to a demure kiss on the cheek. Not that cheek.

NEXT: If the first thing you tell people is that you’re not a bitch…. Ricki Lake and Derek Hough: 20/30 “Who’s got three mirror balls and two thumbs?” Um…a scary monster? Nope, just Derek Hough. No wonder he made such a profound scrunchy face when Len awarded their Viennese waltz a dreaded 6. No time to get picky on Ricki, man, this returning wunderkind has got to win! Ricki clearly also wants to win very badly, so it was great to see the care Derek always puts into his choreography pay off for his emotionally invested partner. “You are a little princess and Derek is a perfect prince,” said Carrie Ann, laying it on a little thick. Speaking of which, I hope Ricki doesn’t insist on making season 13 double as an endless weight loss infomercial starring her. It’s gonna happen anyway, Ms. Turnblad! All you need to do is show up.

Kristin Cavallari and Mark Ballas: 19/30 “I’m Kristin Cavallari, and I’m NOT a bitch.” Oh girl. If you have to say it, you’re probably lying. It was all worth it, though, because during Kristin’s little Hills flashback, we were treated to background shots of former ballroom darling (LOL) Audrina Patridge and one of Heidi Montag’s very first faces. I thought Kristin’s free-flowin’ black fringed shift moved a lot better in the cha cha cha than she did, but that’s the problem with such perfect costumes: You don’t know who to compliment. For Carrie Ann, it was Kristin’s “hairography.” Len advised Kristin to come out of her shell a little bit — which can be extra difficult when your silver-studded beast of a partner Mark cops his signature “look at what I can still do” solo move during your DWTS debut.

David Arquette and Kym Johnson: 18/30 Burning question of the night: Was that Pee Wee Herman next to Courteney Cox, and can both of them please do DWTS?! But anyway, David and Kym. I’m really digging how enthusiastic he is as a student and the reverence he seems to have for dancing. “It’s like having an amusement park in your heart,” he said, in awe, during rehearsal. I freaked. I’m so easy, I know, but isn’t this pretty much the best thing anyone could say about anything? After his slight mess-up during the Viennese waltz, the judges convinced him he has the talent and the ability to convince as a leading man; he just needs to relax a little. But the real gem of David’s segment occurred during their visit to Brooke up in the Celebracadabra Floating Box of Boobs, when she asked him about his daughter Coco and there was Coco, cute as can be in the front row, wiggin’ out.

NEXT: Chaz rubs his belly, Carson shines his shoes, Nancy Grace also participates Chaz Bono and Lacey Schwimmer: 17/30 I was and still am worried about the way Chaz will be received on this show, but he had my heart during rehearsal footage when he shook his gut and marveled “Look at my belly. Isn’t it round and beautiful?” That was just very real to me and set a good tone for the rest of the segment. Chaz and Lacey, who had the benefit of two extra hours of rehearsal time up there in SkyMall Magazine, delivered a precise cha cha cha full of sharp footwork and joy instead of the nervousness I expected. Len called him “Raz-a-matazz Chaz” — too much? — and Bruno raved that Chaz was “cheeky but so cute and cuddly. I didn’t know you were so cuddly!” Jeez, you guys, I’m happy about it too, but tone it down a little. Wait, what am I talking about? This is Dancing With the Stars. Anyway, I love this partnership and loved how all of the colors in Lacey’s sparkly dress matched the colored lights all over the ballroom. Now That’s What I Call Music!

Carson Kressley and Anna Tre-BUN-skaya: 17/30 “Nobody’s going to be working harder than I am to compensate for my lack of talent.” With that line right there, Carson solidified my suspicion that he might be my most favorite DWTS hopeful ever. Every viewer’s different, but this is all I ever wanted in a ballroom-dancing reality TV contestant: good humor, jagger, swagger, stagger, the fiery BUN as a partner, a willingness to commit one’s entire life to Lord Mirrorballus, and a sparkly Liberace jacket with a built-in fringed scarf. Perfect. “Seh-vehhhhn!” Done. Anyway, Carson was such a mess in the practice studio that his assuredness in the cha cha cha was a pleasant surprise. Granted, his assuredness was conveyed via the most ridiculous facial expressions and flailing moves imaginable, but it was deliberate. Ridiculata deliberata. The very best kind. “You’re redefining camp as an art form!” cried Bruno to the Mick and Bianca of season 13. “Two for the price of one and worth every dollar!”

I loved Anna firing back “YOU STILL HAVE HER…” after Carson said he “had” the best partner ever, and Tom quipping “Who knows what else he has in his closet?”

Nancy Grace and Tristan MacManus: 16/30 This was not the disaster I was expecting. I mean, she’s horrible at dancing. Sure. Undeniable. But Nancy’s segment on the whole was sort of funny and oddly endearing in an eye-rolling kind of way. The idea that she won’t be able to understand Tristan’s Irish accent is ludicrous, but if that translates into awkward moments wherein “third” is mistaken for “turd,” then so be it. I like that his accent is throwing her off, to be honest. She’s less likely to needlessly steamroll someone if she has no clue what he’s saying. Anyway, it was only after Nancy ripped off her news desk blazer at the top of their cha cha cha that she could really get down to the business of being “the happiest contestant” Carrie Ann had ever seen out there dancing. On the one hand, really?!?! But on the other, wouldn’t you be full-throttle giddy if you’d gotten to practice in the studio with the toys on the ceiling all week?

NEXT: Time to remove the ‘K’ button from Annie’s keyboardRob Kardashian and Cheryl Burke: 16/30 Do we need to call her Kheryl now? (No.) Ron was a bit of a spoiled-brat head case during his gender wars with Cheryl in their rehearsal package, but once they’d made their way upstairs and he’d been able to do some obligatory gushing over the HIGHLY TELEVISED women in his family, he became rather charming. It just goes to show what the power of the Sparkaliensane Asylum Sponsored by SKYY Vodka can do. After Rob managed to get through a competent but very, very stiff Viennese waltz without being swallowed whole by Cheryl’s Elvis collar, the kameras kept up with the Kardashians (though I could barely keep up with what Khloe was skreeching to the judges during their kritiques). I first assumed Kim was complaining about how much she was sweating, or maybe about her startling proximity to the plebes, but looking back I guess she was complaining that she was about to cry.

Elisabetta Canalis and Val Chmerkovskiy: 15/30 Okay, this Italian vs. Russian language barrier was much easier to swallow than Tristan and Nancy’s Irish (English) vs. American (English) conundrum. They decided to make the most of it and speak in the universal language of the cha cha cha (groan), but despite them being “very, very good in bed” (according to Bruno), Elisabetta was not able to sustain the performance on her own and lost confidence pretty much from the moment she arose from slumber. “Do the photo shoot…with the music,” Carrie Ann implored the TV host/model/actress who most commonly gets “identified for her past private life” [VERY SUBTLE FULL-SCREEN SHOT OF GEORGE CLOONEY]. The pair probably won’t last long, despite the fact that both of them are really, really, really, incredibly good-looking. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

Ron Artest and Peta Murgatroyd: 14/30 Is it terrible that I sort of wish this surprise blondie was Dennis Rodman instead? His cha cha was “all sizzle, no sausage,” according to still-British-after-all-these-years Len, who threw in “not my cup of tea” for good measure. I don’t find this couple too inspiring, but have to admit there is great potential in Metta World Peace’s fashion sense, should he stick around. I can barely remember Metta and Peta’s dance, but I’m quite sure he had on shiny red pants, no shirt, and an open sequined vest. He’s not a terrible contestant, is what I’m saying. Other perks: Bruno suggesting that “Ron the Dance-a-tron” had trouble navigating the technique due to his having “such length of bone,” and Tom Bergeron calling the pair “Metta Peta,” because that just sounds like the most all-encompassing pita sandwich in the world.

Who do you think goes home tonight? I’m guessing Ron/Metta or, more likely, Elisabetta. As reader Carmella put it rather profoundly: “Like who would even vote for her? I have never heard of an Elisabetta Canalis fan.”

I’m Annie Barrett, and while I can be a bitch, I’m NOT’s Fringe Fairy.

Do you see what I mean about the lying?!

Be sure to nominate your hidden gems on PopWatch before 2 p.m. ET.

See you tomorrow, DANCMSTRs! Did you miss me as much as I missed Bruno?


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Read more:

David Arquette talks ‘DWTS’ and making TV shows with Courteney Cox

Chynna Phillips on ‘DWTS’: ‘Orphans were dancing around me’

Chaz Bono on ‘DWTS’: He’ll stay away from the message boards