The fourth season kicks off with some all-looks-no-dance types, and some oversexed wannabes but also with enough stupid routines to make Mia Michaels use her stank face
Cat Deeley

After months of feeling like the cud to American Idol‘s masticating cow, I gotta say leaping right into the warm, sweaty, finely toned embrace of So You Think You Can Dance last night was, well, it was like coming home, dear readers. There was more artistry, charisma, sex appeal, and jaw-in-the-basement moments in the two-hour season premiere — heck, in two minutes of the two-hour season premiere — than there was in whole episodes of the just concluded season of Idol. This SYTYCD episode wasn’t perfect, of course; we still spent far too little time on the auditions of dancers who made it through to the semifinals in Las Vegas and far too much on train-wreck oddballs like Sex. And I’m sorry to disappoint his ”fans,” but this will be the last time the three-peat offender will be mentioned in this (or any) TV Watch, because even though I did think judges Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe didn’t exactly take the high road with him — why did Nigel bother broadcasting Sex’s audition if he feels all Sex wants is to be on television? — I do agree with Nigel on one thing: More attention is the last thing this guy needs.

Not when so much attention must be paid to this show’s multifaceted scrumtrillescence. It was kinda sad during the recap of past seasons that opened the show to hear host Cat Deeley tout the ”record 16 million votes” that came in for last year’s season finale just a day after Ryan Seacrest touted the record 97.5 million votes that came in for this year’s Idol‘s finale. Sad, but also kinda cool; clearly we fans of SYTYCD are members of a super-exclusive club, like, say, the state of Wisconsin to Idol‘s take-all-comers California (the state, for the record, in which I live). All the same, it’s still worth reviewing some of the many reasons I — and, I hope, all of you — love this show so much, so let’s count the ways together as we revisit the auditions in my home city of Los Angeleese.

It’s sometimes impossible to tell whether a dancer is any good This paradoxically delightful, um, paradox was established with the night’s very first audition. Was I the only one who thought Devon Oshiro’s whirling routine could just as well have been to the growling guitars of ”Barracuda” that played accidentally at first instead of whatever soft-and-gentle throw-pillow music she ended up dancing to? The judges sat so stone-faced through the number that I honestly hadn’t a clue whether Devon was any good or not until they told me. Likewise, I had to scratch my head when Mary told the ballroom couple Leonidas ”Shia ‘Mutt Williams’ LaBeouf” Proskurov and Aliona ”Ashlee ‘Pre-Nose-Job’ Simpson” Vetrenko that she thought they danced with ”class.” If by ”class,” Mary means ”hip-swiveling, fellatio-alluding panache,” then, sure — maybe it’s a special dancing term, like ”great lines” or ”floor work.”

NEXT: The babe factor

I do know what ”star quality” means, though, and I’m not exactly sure that Kherington Payne has it as much as she has ”great skin,” ”symmetrical features,” and ”the potential to be this year’s prima donna nightmare.” She certainly danced with light and bright energy, but between her uniquely spelled name, dangerously pronounced home town of Placentia, Calif., and confession that she once hit a girl on the soccer field, my takeaway was a pretty, precious princess. I mean, the judges praised Kherington’s face as much as her dancing; I think all Nigel needed to know about her potential on the show was written right into the doofy grin on Dominic, the special guest from season 3.

And, hey, I don’t mind that at all. When I discussed this year’s season with Nigel last week, the SYTYCD judge and executive producer admitted flat out that these auditions are as much about ”casting” as they are about finding fantabulous dancers. This is a reality TV show; anyone who thinks a contestant’s physical beauty and potential for behind-the-scenes fireworks shouldn’t matter apparently hasn’t spent much time, you know, watching reality TV. Besides, I trust the judges aren’t out to make a complete travesty of the audition process for one simple reason:

The judges know what they’re talking about, and they’re entertaining to boot Case in point: For every Kherington Payne who makes it through, there’s a Jonathan Anzalone who doesn’t. A near-perfect specimen of male beauty whose cockiness dial was turned all the way to 11 (”I like myself, and I like to show that to people”), Jonathan was also not so much a ”professional dancer” as a guy who watched far too many Michael Jackson music videos back in his native Italy and thought, ”I am way hotter than this dude here, and I already unbutton my shirt, pump my hips and grab my crotch a lot, so I must be dancing already!” I think the judges kept Jonathan around for the choreography portion of the auditions simply for the eye candy, and I don’t blame them; even a man as staunchly heterosexual as Nigel seemed to appreciate the chance to admire the (insanely obnoxious) Adonis.

At the very least, Jonathan allowed for the most hysterical comment of the night. After Nigel asked guest judge Mia Michaels whether she thought the guy would be successful in the U.S., she replied, ”Not very sex-cessful,” before dissolving into a puddle of embarrassment. Ah, Mia. Without you, we’d still be saying ”stupid” to mean ”dumb” and making a ”stank face” only when we walked up to the Dumpster overflowing with our neighbor’s kid’s used diapers.

Not that Nigel and Mary were slouches. It would have been easy for the judges to have either dismissed out of hand or grossly overpraised William B. Wingfield’s stirring contemp routine to a spoken-word track about race and class oppression. Instead, all three judges thoughtfully responded to the creativity of its content while holding firm to the correct assertion that it was a bad showcase for a SYTYCD audition. (One wonders how often WBW has actually seen the show, however, given his professed international-gypsy lifestyle.) Thankfully, WBW made it through to Vegas after the choreography round, as Mary made quite clear with her trademark ear-piercing scream. (Loved Mia’s face at that moment, right?) (And double loved that season 2’s Travis Wall was leading the choreography sessions, right?)

NEXT: Blind audition

Heart, heart, heart, heart, heart Still, Mia was the MVJ of the night after her tear-jerking reaction to dancer Laura Garcia. Afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that has left her legally blind, Laura still managed to give a truly strong, if understandably unrefined, audition. Nigel and Mary punted when they said they were passing on Laura not because she was blind but because her ”technique” was lacking — which was, of course, in part because, as Laura herself explained, she can only really learn choreography when she’s standing right next to the choreographer. But then it was Mia’s turn to speak, and the normally steely Emmy winner was a sobbing wreck, deeply moved by Laura’s drive and reminded of a close friend and dancer who had recently been rendered blind as well. Afterward, standing in the lobby, Laura softly said to the camera, ”Thank you for even watching me, and I wish I could have stayed longer. And I love Mia Michaels.” Shoosh, I’m misty just retyping it here.

I’m such a sucker for that kind of heart, that earnest determination to dance, dammit, that the snark demon who lives on my shoulder, Smirkelstiltskin, regards me during these moments with something bordering on utter contempt. I was petrified that Victor Kim’s back was going to snap as he lifted himself by his arms as his legs curled over his head, but when the business and economics major said, ”I do not want to be an accountant,” I could hear the Rudy music thundering in the background. (I did think it was a bit cruel for the show to spend that much time with the guy and then so casually toss him away with a quick shot of an apparently disappointing go at the choreography.) And if Asuka Kondoh dances like that when she’s sick, she’s going to be soooooo stupid when she heals up. (Her dance partner Ricky Sun, however, may want to invest in a pair of jeans that aren’t quite so conspicuously from the women’s section — and this is coming from a guy whose favorite pair of jeans is from the women’s section….What?)

Repeat auditioners actually improve year-to-year — mostly If you really want to talk about heart, how about Twitch, the B-boy who just missed making it into the final 20 last season and clearly took the time to make sure that won’t happen again? His audition was a full-on, thoughtful, contemporary-inflected routine; Twitch’s decision to take it all a bit more seriously — though, thankfully, not ”dead serious and all emo” — paid off in spades. I wish I could say the same for Phillip Chbeeb, whose mind-blowing rubber-boned popping still had me worried about whether he’s getting enough calcium and whether he’s just a one-trick dude. (Let’s just hope the producers don’t forget him completely during Vegas week, as they did last season.) And if any blond female dancer exuded star quality last night, it was three-time auditioner Erika Gee, who dropped her ”musical theater, flamenco, jazz, baton twirler” style in favor of an impassioned contemporary number that had the judges raving.

NEXT: Mars attacks!

Meanwhile, I finally figured out where Gold Inferno developed the inimitable ”jump style” that he debuted to America last season: The superstar factory that is Dance Dance Revolution. I think he wears that mask so we can’t see him mouthing, ”Up, down, left, left, right and left, up, down, right and left, down, up, right, down, left, up and down, right, down, right,” to himself as he imagines the stage floor littered with corresponding arrows. Even the music — the best music SYTYCD has ever heard, mind you — sounded like it was right out of the game. I do hope someone cheers the guy up.

Extra-terrestrials get to try out Mia Michaels spoke for all of us, I think, when she told L.A. popper Robert Muraine that she was ”ready for you to unzip your skin and come out like, blaaaah, like you’re an alien or something.” This guy’s dancing was stupid, stank, even sick, so much so that it started to inch into the unironically sick — as in, I was getting a little sick watching someone twist, bend, buckle and pivot his body into shapes that mathematicians can only re-create on a supercomputer as they have been deemed theoretically impossible in the real world. But the guy is a born showman, and a born hustler, too, talking Nigel into giving him a ticket to Vegas when it was pretty darn clear the Brit was dead set on having Travis teach him some choreography first. If you thought I was exaggerating when I said at the top of this TV Watch that two minutes of this episode were better than whole episodes of Idol this season, then go back on your DVR and watch just this bit between Robert and Nigel, starting when the judge asked him to do his I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can’t back bend to when the two ended in an impromptu pop-locking embrace. Now that’s entertainment.

What did you think of this season premiere? Did you want to follow Jonathan Anzalone home? Or would you have rather hung out at the local singles bar with Irina Korenkov-Eller and asked whether ”Rijiy” is Russian for ”red head” or ”tighty whities?” Is it really possible to be racist against tall people? Are you dying to find out what pants Nigel chose to tie together the rugby shirt and Florence Henderson ‘do he was sporting in the auditions preview at the start of the show? And when do you think Cat Deeley plans on returning my fourth-grade art teacher’s green painting smock? School isn’t quite over, Cat, and Mrs. Jackson’s class still has to do its finger-painting final exams.

Episode Recaps

So You Think You Can Dance

Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and the viewers at home crown America’s Favorite Dancer.

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