On their last night together as couples, the Top 12 struggle when tasked with performing two routines

By Adam B. Vary
Updated July 14, 2011 at 10:35 AM EDT
James Dimmock/FOX

So You Think You Can Dance

S8 E14
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I owe Jesse Tyler Ferguson an apology. In my walk-up PopWatch post for last night’s Top 12 performance episode of So You Think You Can Dance, I threw some serious shade his way for deigning to step behind the judges’ table with nary a single qualification to even semiprofessionally judge professional dancing. Sure, he was in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway, but that show, charming as it is, is not exactly A Chorus Line. No matter, though, because last night the ginger half of the Tucker-Pritchett household on Modern Family proved himself to be uncannily qualified to judge dancing … on this specific dancing competition-cum-reality television program. A true SYTYCD superfan, Mr. JTF was witty and natty, self-depreciating and self-possessed, offering well-phrased praise and thoughtful reproach — basically everything you want out of an Emmy-nominated gay dinner party guest. And he capped it all with a genuine, long-deserved tribute to the sparkling, fringe-y swizzle stick that is host Cat Deeley, who if the world is in any way just and kind should be an Emmy nominee by the time you read this. Bravo, JTF, bravo. I shall never doubt your SYTYCD bona fides again.

I only wish the episode JTF presided over with professional guest judge Mia Michaels Jr. Sonya Tayeh had matched his unabashed enthusiasm. Perhaps this is a classic case of being careful what you wish for: For weeks now, I’ve been harping on the judges for overpraising the dancers, and the producers for letting the couples “pull” genres too far in their own wheelhouse. Alas, when asked this week to dance two routines, at least one of which was an out-of-wheelhouse challenge, every single couple struggled — some much more than others — and the judges (for the most part) let ’em have it. The result: Only two couples managed to stake an obvious claim to a slot in the top 10.

Sasha and Alexander were not one of them, thanks to a paso doble by Tony Meredith and EW.com guest blogger Melaine LaBetteMidlerPatin that to my eye started strong but fell apart once the dancers moved into a close hold. As my colleague Mandi Bierly says, whenever these dancers do ballroom badly, it looks like they’re stumbling around in half time. Sasha kept looking down at her feet, and Alexander too often just does not seem to be all that aware of and/or confident about where he needs to put his hands. That’s a chronic problem for him, actually. In the opening pose of their Tyce Diorio jazz number, Alexander slammed his hand smack down on Sasha’s face; not 30 seconds later, he just about mauled her left breast instead of grabbing her waist like he clearly should have. It was such a jarring sight, I kinda checked out of the entire number; it was only after the judges heaped praise upon it that I went back and rewatched it. And I guess I get what they were saying — they both did dance with abandon, power, and conviction, and Alexander finally managed to stay out of Sasha’s hungry shadow. But I still found the number itself to be Tyce’s usual brew of individually well-done moments that add up to an exhausting and shapeless mélange of movement. He’s like the Michael Bay of SYTYCD choreography. Still, that’s no reason for Sonya to compare him to “[bloop].”

NEXT: Jordan goes from a man-eating vulture to a tacky ’80s princess

In fairness to Tyce, I also wasn’t exactly leaping for joy for the first routine by SYTYCD Golden Boy Travis Wall. I’ll take my licks for this in the comments if need be, but his contemporary number for Jordan and Tadd about a strong woman (i.e., vulture) who preys on a weak man (i.e., deserted wanderer) just left me wanting. The dancers gave their all to the material — I remain deeply impressed with how fluidly Tadd takes to the material he’s been given — but halfway through I found myself paying more attention to Jordan’s hand-feather thingies than their dancing. Maybe it’s because it seemed like Tadd’s “weak” man sprang to his own robust defense pretty much from the beginning, or because so much of Jordan’s dancing remains a series of fancy developpés. Still, the number was light-years better than their Broadway routine by Spencer Liff. Nothing about it worked. The dancing alone made zero impression — it seemed like Spencer cut out many of his planned lifts and tumbles due to Jordan’s poor “acro” skills — and the music from Rent did not match at all. Most importantly, the pair looked rrrrridiculous;he came off like an extra in a Disney Channel version of a Panic! at the Disco music video, and she appeared to be modeling a cast-off frock from the Desperately Seeking Susan evening wear collection. None of these things in any combination should ever be broadcast on national television.

It was really not Spencer’s week, either. His Broadway routine for Ryan and Ricky also fell flat, a victim of Ricky’s tentative grasp of the material and Ryan’s inability to shake off the pressure of living up to the show’s early, exhaustive pro-Ryan boosterism. And make no mistake, the Ryan Ramirez hypemobile has long since been ditched at the junkyard and stripped for parts. She clearly outdanced Ricky in the first number, giving her steps and character at least some of the slink and panache they required. The judges, however, chose to criticize them as a pair, instead of targeting Ricky for dancing like a coat hanger was stuck in his shoulders. When it came time to critique their Louie van Amstel cha-cha, however, Nigel and Mary both singled Ricky out for fulsome praise while complaining about Ryan’s untidy, wide stance. Mary even put Ricky on the hot-tamale train without Ryan. Since my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin eats all the synapses that store any information about the hot-tamale train and who gets to ride it (to where? Spicy Burritoburg?), you’ll have to tell me whether this development has any precedent in the annals of SYTYCD.

So if Ryan is entering tonight’s results show with a big ole target on her back, Mitchell is likely her male counterpart. His first hip-hop routine with Caitlynn — I mean, what is there to say? I was already exhausted when Cat threw to commercial break by teasing “a very moving Caitlynn and Mitchell hip-hop routine,” and we cut to the pair wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “Invisible Children.” Like the judges, I admire and respect choreographer Christopher Scott’s intention to represent the plight of child soldiers in Uganda; I’m happy to link to the website to the organization that appeared to inspire the routine. But like the judges — who, bless them, resisted the urge to wanly praise the routine in service to the greater cause — I thought the dancers oversold the emotion and undercooked the dancing. The whole thing was a sad, soggy sundae; you desperately want to like it, but someone drowned it in syrup and crumbly stale bits of candy cane and forgot most of the ice cream save for a single scoop from that one carton that’s been in the freezer for heaven knows how long and has grown a strange layer of fuzzy ice overtopping it that you swear you saw moving when you opened it for the first time since the George W. Bush administration. (Ten cents of Internet money to the first person who can explain the preceding sentence to me.)

NEXT: Travis to the rescue! And Melanie and Marko stumble! Slightly!

Thankfully, Caitlynn and Mitchell were redeemed by Travis Wall’s rock & roll jazz number about a ’70s rock star who learns her lover is a married man. Both of them seemed relieved to be able to tackle a routine with a concrete story to tell, Caitlynn especially. Sonya and Nigel, though, took the time to point out that at times Mitchell’s face loses the plot in deference to mastering the steps, and I detected the scent of the results-show send-off set up in their words.

Melanie and Marko, by contrast, have nothing to worry about. Sure, they finally pulled a genre that was completely foreign to them, and yeah, their Louie van Amstel tango did seem a bit stiff and stumbly, here and there. But JTF was spot- on when he zeroed in on their spark, the ineffable thing that leaps out of the TV whenever they take to the stage. Melanie’s back-exposing, high-slitted, lace-and-satin burgundy dress, on the other hand, proved to be quite controversial in my household. I thought the fit was awkward and the cut made Melanie look kinda dowdy — even (paging Tim Gunn) matronly. My fiancé argued that it greatly enhanced her curves (especially her bosom) and likely caused the 17 straight men watching this show to say in a soft drone of wonder, “She’s preeeeeetty.” Basically, “it makes her look like a woman.” Point taken. If it seems like I’m stalling from discussing Dee Caspary’s contemporary routine, by the way, well, I am. For one, I’m running out of ways to talk about how much Melanie and Marko are in a different league from the rest of the contestants — count me equal parts wistful and relieved they’re splitting up next week. For another, I’m still trying to shake the final moments of the number, when it looked like Melanie had finally pulled Marko into the light, only to have him drag her back with him into the darkness. (Shudders.)

If Melanie and Marko were typically brilliant, the real revelation of the night for me was Clarice. In Christopher Scott’s tender lyrical hip-hop number, she finally and utterly grabbed my attention away from Jess, no easy feat considering his effortless technical showmanship and open-mouthed perma-grin. I really believed she was a girl discovering her own beauty for the first time — and maybe in a way she kinda was. And then Jess revealed his “portrait” of her, a pale and jaundiced and runny likeness that looked like it’d been painted by a pre-Hollywood Tim Burton and will likely haunt my dreams for at least a week. (Smirkelstiltskin, naturally, is looking into converting it into a wallpaper pattern for his rumpus room.) Thank buhjeebus for the palate cleanser that was their Tony and Melanie jive. The story-free confection may have been a bit light on dialed-to-11 energy, but after two hours and 11 routines, I was exhausted, and I’d just been sitting with the dog, clattering away on my laptop — some snazzy leg kicks matched with a perfect song choice was really all I needed to end the night on a high note.

How did you feel about the Top 12 week, fellow Dance fiends? Clearly, Melanie, Marko, Jess, and Clarice are in the top 10, and could very well be our four finalists. But who else will join them? Is Ryan a goner? Is Mitchell in line for elimination, or should Alexander’s shaky partnering skills put him in danger? And who else let out a yelp of excitement when Cat let slip that Neil Patrick Harris, Mayor of Broadway, could be gracing the SYTYCD judges’ table in the near future?

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamBVary

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