Despite some standout performances, the season's second episode feels like a retread of the premiere

Harumph. I think last week’s So You Think You Can Dance season premiere spoiled me, dear readers. See, I came away from the episode last night feeling like a guy who’d been really looking forward to the second date, only to be taken to the same restaurant and the same movie as the first date, but this time the food was undercooked and someone had spliced out the best part of the flick. And then somehow the date decided that was all my fault.

I mean, I get it: These audition episodes aren’t about dancing as much as they’re about ”dramatic stories” with ”colorful personalities” and ”the wicked schadenfreude of watching people who think they’re epically awesome get shown up when they’re exposed to be quite less than epically awesome.” Hence the blind dancer Laura Garcia and the full-of-it sex bomb Jonathan Anzalone. Hence the walking Love Boat character Irina Korenkov-Eller. Hence Gold Inferno. But when the stories aren’t that dramatic, the personalities more monochromatic than colorful, and the awful dancers neither all that awful nor all that epically full of themselves, well, I’d just as soon lose one or two of those segments in favor of, you know, good dancing. Instead, with only 15 minutes left in the two hours spent on the auditions in Salt Lake City and Dallas, the producers chose to race through eight or nine seemingly excellent performers, including a woman who Nigel Lythgoe called the ”best female hip-hop dancer we’ve had on the program” — a line, you may recall, that was prominently highlighted in the promos for last night’s show.

I’d love to be able to talk about her, but the powers that be at SYTYCD didn’t even see fit to tell us her name, let alone give us more than a 10-second glance at her apparently unprecedented dancing (which, truth be told, seemed to feature a crotch grab as its signature moment). Hence: Harumph. Since last week I delineated all the reasons I love this show, I think it only fair to break down this episode into its essential elements — the Stories, the Disasters, the Good Dancing — to discuss just what was such a letdown, and what glimmers of hope, however fleeting, shone the brightest.

The Stories

Nigel and Co. certainly didn’t waste any time getting down to the business at hand with their first audition, introducing Chelsie Hightower with some bleating Britney beats and repeated testimony from young Chelsie’s mother and Chelsie herself that she’s ”tough.” Why, once upon a time, her sizable family lost their house and ”several cars.” Several? Do tell! But, no, that vaguely defined hardship was as in-depth as we got with Chelsie; we didn’t even learn why she had to snag someone else’s partner for her audition. (Was her original partner snowed in? Sick with the flu? Felled by Cat Deeley’s spastic go-go fist jiggles? Seems like there could’ve been a good three more minutes wasted on dragging out that drama, eh, Nigel?) Especially considering she was dancing with an unfamiliar partner, Chelsie was impressive — it’s nice to see that ballroom dancing has worked its way from mother Russia to the Rockies — and guest judge Mandy Moore trotted out our second ”star quality” of the season. But whatever became of Chelsie’s ad hoc partner? Did the fist jiggles take him out too?

NEXT: A special moment

Our next ”story” followed right away, and it was easily my favorite of the night precisely because it could’ve devolved into treacle but didn’t. Brett Banford, a global messenger for the Special Olympics, won over pretty much everyone he encountered (including me) with his engaging enthusiasm; when he crowed, ”I’m here to represent,” and the crowd leapt to their feet and roared their approval, the inspirational-sports-movie fan in me couldn’t help tearing up. The other supposed inspirational story of the night — that of full-contact-fighting trainer and country-western/ballroom/hip-hop instructor Chad Agnor — didn’t move me so much as it had me hiding behind my laptop as the galoot recklessly charged into his audition determined to prevail over his torn hamstring. Dramatic? Sure. Entertaining? Not so much. (I was even less clear on why we spent any time on Michael Moore’s backstory — do you think Transfusion Hype plays a lot of gigs at Red Cross facilities? — if the only payoff after he bricked the audition was his self-deprecating joke to the judges that he teaches dance.)

And then there were the moms. I love moms. I’m particularly fond of my own. And, yes, Kortney Pearson doubled her screen time by showing up with BFF and fellow blond divorcée Michelle Stringham, who at least thought enough to leave the jeans and massive knitting-project-I-mean-scarf in her gym bag when she tried out. And, sure, Nicole Downer’s audition had an appealing future-soccer-mom jazzercise spunk to it (and the song choice of Daniel Bedingfield’s ”Gotta Get Thru This” was hilariously apt). But so help me, I could not have cared less about Kortney taking dance fitness classes from Michelle to lose her baby weight, or Nicole packing up her halfway-to-eight-is-enough brood each morning to walk to the school bus. I want to see good dancing, dammit.

The Disasters

But, no, instead I had to weather human shrugs like Brian Davidson, who began his brief tenure on the show by barking like a dog and ended it with a litany of non sequitur trash talk, with a smattering of cheesy club boogieing in the middle. Mind you, I’m not really mad at Brian. I’m mad at the producers for putting Brian on the audition stage and into my TV. The judges, however, seemed to take the bad dancing extra-personally last night, as if the specter of foot slides and shoulder shuffles Naomie Christensen sloughed onto the boards was some kind of affront to dancing itself. I realize Naomie wasn’t exactly the most self-aware person in the world — that much was clear the moment she said, ”I do some acting and financial advising,” without any apparent irony. But Nigel and Mary seemed angry that she — and Cassidy ”31 flavors of booty-shaking” Corder — even dared to attempt to try out when those judges both know full well their anger should be directed at whoever prescreened Naomie and Cassidy and deemed them ready for prime time. Yes, Mandy Moore, you were being punk’d, and the person you can blame was probably sitting two chairs to your left.

That anger peaked with Steven Arner, inexplicably the last dancer of the night. It seems kinda obvious that the prescreeners took one look at the guy’s Mickey Mouse’d fro and put him right through to the judges, but his hip-hop chair dance wasn’t really all that memorably awful, and neither, really, was his jank attitude. (Okay, the hand puppets at the beginning were pretty silly.) But something about the guy flipped the catty switch in Mary Murphy; after she repeatedly insisted that he needed hip-hop training, Steven finally broke out with a bratty ”giiiirl,” to which Mary instantly replied, ”Boy, you want to get in my face?” Then he called her what I assume was a word that rhymes with witch, and Mary berated him out of the auditorium. Now, let’s be clear here: I do not believe Mary meant the ”boy” as any kind of racial pejorative. She plainly was coming back at Steven by using, how do you say, his own particular idiom. But the whole exchange left me feeling ooky and unpleasant, like getting stuck in the room as your best friend fights with his parents. That’s not so much the recommended way to leave things with your viewers.

NEXT: That’s entertainment!

The Good Dancers

And that is not how I want to leave you, dear readers, so I’ve saved the best for last. Like Joshua Allen, whose forceful hip-hopping and winning smile had me beaming. Or like Ryann Race, whose fluid flow dancing so won over the judges that they put him through to Vegas even though it would appear he crashed and burned during the choreography stage. The strip-club DJ with the stripper girlfriend was responsible for my two favorite lines of the night: One, when he lamented that ”it’s hard to be a couple in a strip club.” (Ain’t it, though?) And two, this slice of random crazy from Mary after Ryann’s audition: ”You definitely have something cooking for you nice cool and groovy, mister sir, I say, heh heh haaaaaaa.” (I say, I say, Mary’s turning into Foghorn Leghorn. The cartoon, that is.)

Of the three strongest male dancers last night, the one who stood out the most to me was Thayn Jasperson — so, of course, he got the least screen time out of all of them. (For a second there, I even wondered if he was a mute.) Matt Dorame’s technique seemed strong, but while Nigel was distracted by his gym shorts, did anyone else find his gee-gaw Broadway grinning even more odd, especially against the grunge-y, emo-y rock track he danced to? Gev Manoukian gets points for learning other dancing styles after getting cut from season 2’s auditions, but his whole routine felt slightly forced to me, as if he were uncomfortable with dancing on a surface that wasn’t 25 degrees and Zamboni-slick.

The real standouts from last night, though, were Arielle Coker and Kelli Baker. I was kinda shocked, really, that the producers didn’t sic Cat on Arielle and her partner, John Dix for the third degree about their ”relationship.” (Of course, when Arielle admitted that John pretty much does everything she asks of him, we all knew exactly how that story was going to end…and then we saw how, when she awkwardly pushed him away after she’d made it to Vegas.) But Arielle’s dancing was light, expressive, and maybe my favorite of the season thus far.

Okay, no, Kelli was my favorite. And Nigel’s. And Mary’s. And Mandy’s. Even though she faltered after one of her jumps, Kelli’s lines, technique, floor work, um, musicality and, er, extension were all first rate. Which is to say, I haven’t the first clue why she was so fabulous; I just know she was. (And she kinda better be, what with having an Emmy-winning choreographer for a mother.) This otherwise lackluster episode just may be remembered instead as the debut of a SYTYCD front-runner — although, given that we didn’t even glimpse Sabra until the very end of the Vegas episodes, I’m not holding my breath just yet.

Were you as disappointed as I was with last night’s episode? Did it seem like the dancers of Salt Lake City were especially overhyped? Were you surprised to see that Elle Woods has given up the law to pursue a pageant and dancing career? (And where for the love of pink was Bruiser?) Does anyone know what Mary and Michelle Stringham meant by (what sounded like) a ”Marley stage”? And if Cat’s already resorting to blanket fashion shows, how long do you think it will take before she’s daring dancers to bungee jump using nothing but her collection of scarves?

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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