An overworked final four try to make the most of some of the least successful routines in SYTYCD history.

By Adam B. Vary
Updated August 11, 2011 at 12:13 PM EDT
Credit: James Dimmock/FOX
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So. That happened. Look, the performance finales of So You Think You Can Dance have never exactly been known to showcase powerhouse dancing. I don’t really blame anyone for this. The contestants are at the end of a grueling three-month competition that only gets exponentially harder as it progresses, like a marathon in which the finish line is at the top of a mountain, at the end of an obstacle course, and atop a granite obelisk slathered in Crisco. The choreographers have been churning out routines about couples who break up, couples who cheat, couples who yearn, couples who cope, and couples who on rare occasion are happy simply to be a couple — they are bound to suffer from some creative burnout. And the producers have two hours of airtime to fill each week, and by this point have exhausted all possible cutesy video packages that help us get to know the dancers. Brilliant and talented though she may be, there is only so much vamping Cat Deeley can do. In fact, if you’ve clicked through’s Top 25 So You Think You Can Dance routines of all time — absent the top-flight routines of season 8, of course — you will find only one number from a finale (the Travis and Benji hip-hop routine from season 2), way up at No. 20.

So I get it. This particular episode is always really, really, really hard. But good grief, people. The first half of last night’s show featured some of the most titanically unsuccessful routines SYTYCD has seen in years. Things picked up toward the end, but no one escaped unscathed — not the contestants, not the judges, not even the usually unflappable Cat, who resembled a glamorous cyborg with that giant mic pack sticking out of her back. At one point, while casually rearranging her hair, Cat offhandedly asked Melanie whether her late father would be proud of her, the sensitive-human-interest-interview equivalent of lifting your partner like a lumpy sack of potatoes.

Which is exactly how Marko lifted Melanie throughout their staggering calamity of a Doriana Sanchez disco number. Nothing worked. Marko’s shirt was the color of middle school lunch trays. Melanie’s costume looked like someone had taped together a set of novelty glitter napkins. Their expressions, meant to evoke effortless cool, made me think that one or both of them had accidentally farted. The “sparkle cam” that popped into the middle of the routine caused my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin to break out in hives. And I’m sorry, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” sounds like a beluga whale having a tantric orgasm in the middle of a West Berlin warehouse rave circa 1983.

So naturally, the judges punted. Choreographer and director Kenny Ortega said it was “fun, electric, sizzling, great” like one might describe a set of engine parts. Onetime Tyce Diorio routine performer Katie Holmes told the dancers the expressions on their faces made her want to dance (“away from the disco flatulence cloud you just left on that stage,” she thought in the Katie Holmes internal snarkologue I created for myself throughout the evening to fill in the suggestive glances and pregnant pauses woven through her deceptively pleasant commentary). At least Nigel and Mary pointed out how much of an “uncomfortable” “struggle” the routine was, but I guess no one wants to start an evening off by pronouncing something the worst piece ever performed this season — or everyone knew that it was only going to get worse, so why waste all their ammunition so early? Foreshadowing!

NEXT: Mark, and Mark’s chest, returns to dance with Sasha

Things started looking up when Sasha teamed up with All-Star Mark for a number choreographer Sonya Tayeh called an “ode” to the contestant dancing it — specifically, an ode to all the “obstacles” Sasha has overcome in her life. Mark was meant to embody those obstacles, but I fear he did it too well, as his mere presence proved to be too much of an obstacle to my paying attention to anything other than the fact that Lady Gaga has transformed him from a handsome, quirky geek into living sex. All right, that’s not quite accurate. The number started strong — I was especially impressed by the rapid sequence of Mark “punching” Sasha to the floor. But then it all got oddly taut and muddled, kind of like the heavy, skittery beat sequence that took over the Deadmau5 track it was danced to. So I punted, and zeroed in on the most enjoyable part of the routine, namely Mark and Mark’s chest, and I am perfectly fine with admitting that. Kenny Ortega later noted that Sasha was battling an unspecified injury, which could be why her movement seemed so tight. But it still earned a Mary Murphy scream, and Nigel blathered something about her throwing down the gauntlet, so at least the narrative of Sasha versus Melanie was finally allowed to start in earnest.

Tadd and Joshua‘s Lil’ C hip-hop routine was no great shakes — it was hard-hitting, sure, and the duo acquitted themselves well within it, but they had zero connection to each other, and the choreography basically played the same two or three notes throughout. The judges, in turn, chose to fixate on Tadd’s ruby shoes, allowing Cat to make a clandestine movie pitch to Mr. Ortega about “if Dorothy was in the hood.” But the number still provoked two thoughts I would like to share with you now. The first: Tadd is such a natural showman, and blessed with such refined, modelesque features, I suspect he will have the easiest time finding work when the season is over. The second: I’ve noticed a growing consensus of disappointment with this season — a disappointment I do not share, by the way, but I’m not about to muster a full-throated defense of this season in the wake of such a disastrous finale. Still, I can understand the frustration, and I think it is pretty obvious why: By week 4, Tadd was the only street-style dancer left, and SYTYCD is always at its most popular and exciting when it features a multitude of hip-hoppers, breakers, b-boys, and pop-and-lockers. There’s a reason season 4 — dominated by street dancers Joshua, tWitch, Comfort, and Gev — is viewed by many as the show’s peak year.

There’s not much to say about Stacey Tookey’s contemporary routine for Melanie and Robert other than it was lovely and simple in the best way, and at that point in the show the most well-constructed and executed routine of the night. Nigel created a hilariously strange mental picture when he started bleating about Melanie slapping Sasha in the face with her own gauntlet, and then Cat Deeley used Kenny Ortega’s wholehearted praise of Melanie as an opportunity to play Mel’s agent and successfully score her a verbal agreement for a role in Ortega’s just-announced, not-controversial-at-all reboot of Dirty Dancing. But Cat, you might want to ring up your own agents if you think their fee is double the customary 10 percent.

NEXT: Marko disappears into a Broadway number, in more ways than one

If I may, for a moment, address anyone from the show who might be reading this recap, please, I beg of you, Spencer Liff needs to officially replace Tyce Diorio as SYTYCD‘s designated Broadway choreographer — freeing up Tyce to create numbers like last week’s stunning wall dance, and allowing young audiences to understand that Broadway routines are supposed to tell a coherent story that connects in some meaningful way with the music behind it. Now, whether Spencer’s number for Sasha and Marko last night was a finale-worthy routine is an open question. It was all kinds of fizzy fun, but the fatigue factor forestalled them from finding the full fire for their frisky frolic. (Hey, it’s my final recap of the season, and I’m feeling frisky myself.) Until Nigel ruined the party by pointing out these shortcomings, the other three judges focused most on Marko’s impressive transformation into a dapper dweeb. Raved Katie Holmes: “I loved when you jumped up!” (“…into that killer somersault in the Sonya number you did with Caitlynn last week. This? Meh.”)

Still, it was light-years better than the next couple’s routine. Actually, anything would have been better — anything at all, like the Running Man bit from last week’s Mel Brooks-ian “Bad Boys of Dance” performance, or Tadd and Sasha just standing in place for three minutes, or my dad demonstrating his self-professed “maaaad hip-hop skillz.” (Yes, somehow he says that with a “z,” and heaven help me, I love him for it.) What on earth was Mark Ballas thinking with this “modern, fun, edgy” cha-cha? Did the Dancing With the Stars pro want to make the most inauspicious debut as a SYTYCD choreographer since those unfortunate Russian folk-dance folks from season 5? He scarcely could have done worse if he tried. Set to an atonal nightmare of a Basement Jaxx track, it was a clumsy, halting, sluggish clump of movement that only fleetingly resembled actual ballroom steps used in the real world. It was like when you have a dream that you’re in your apartment, but it’s not really your apartment, it’s a Somali pirate ship manned by velociraptors who only speak backward Esperanto, and they are systematically removing your fingers and toes until you perform the big monologue from the high school production of Our Town that you did props for. Orrrrrr maybe that’s just me. Thank buh-jeebus for Kenny Ortega, who rescued the evening from total annihilation with his stirring pep talk to Sasha and Tadd: “Look at me. Look at me. Let it go. Turn around. Walk off. Come back on and blow us away.” Clear minds! Full hearts! Okay!

NEXT: The best routine of the night, and Mary Murphy makes me a blubbering mess

Mark Ballas’ return to SYTYCD may be as likely to happen as Bono’s return to Broadway, but I can give my full support to many, many more routines by Tessandra Chavez. She actually made her first appearance on SYTYCD last season, but her contemporary number for Marko and Lauren will always be her grand debut. Nimble and fragile and fearless and deeply felt, it was the only number I rewatched — easily the routine of the night, and one of the very best of the year. And then Mary Murphy — who was on a roll last night in general, with several sharp-eyed, well-put, reasonably audible critiques — laid this slice of clear-eyed insight on Marko: “You’ve been given a second chance in life, and I can feel that you’re not going to waste any bit of it. It’s such a beautiful thing.” For reasons I only partly understand, this caught me completely off guard and reduced me to a weeping puddle on my couch. I suspect it was a combination of Marko surviving a gunshot wound, Mary surviving cancer, both of Marko’s parents sitting in the audience, and Mary’s kind, simple homage to her late ex-husband, who just recently died from cancer, on this website a few weeks ago. I also suspect I’m just a big softy sap, but I don’t think I’m the only one who was deeply moved by the entire segment. With everything else so off-kilter last night, I have a lingering feeling the voting scales may have tipped in Marko’s favor. More on this in a bit.

With all that potent emotion filling my TV and my eyes, I was quite grateful for the double dose of sass that was subsequently served up by Ray Leeper’s jazz routine for Tadd and Melanie. The judges lauded Melanie’s character work, and proclaimed that Tadd was redeemed from the Routine That Shall Not Be Named. Me, I’m struggling to remember much of the routine, but that could be because of the late hour I’m writing this recap, or the hypnotic state I fell into thanks to Tadd’s undulating ab muscles.

The final routines of the night matched the women and men together, and if it wasn’t already obvious which way the producers want the wind to blow on tonight’s results show, the outcome of these two pairings made it crystal clear. Sasha and Melanie danced an evocative Stacey Tookey contemporary number about repressed housewives, a routine that was at once utterly captivating and completely in the women’s wheelhouse. Marko and Tadd, meanwhile, were asked to close the show with a Gumboot Stepping number (or, as Nigel Britishized it, a “Wellington Boot Slap” number) by Chuck Maldonado that was a series of rapid-fire slaps, kicks, jumps, and steps set to one of the most fast-paced, beat-heavy hip-hop songs ever, OutKast’s “B.O.B.” Tadd handled the challenge a bit better than Marko, but after three routines and one solo each, watching them scramble to hit every micro-beat stuffed into their performance just felt flatly unfair.

NEXT: And then Nigel had to go and open his mouth

Things were looking shaky indeed for season 8’s men, but then Nigel declared that “right from the beginning” he thought a girl would win this season, and nothing he had seen last night had changed his mind. If I were Marko, I would have kissed Nigel. Okay, no, I wouldn’t have, but I would have thought about kissing him, and then been so put off by that mental image that, well, my face would’ve probably looked something like this:

Because if I’ve learned anything from watching this show nigh on five years, it’s that whenever Nigel starts making brash assertions about the voting outcome, he ends up mobilizing voters to cancel out those prognostications.

So do I think Marko will win? After last night, I’d definitely give him at least the same odds as Melanie and Sasha. Of the three, Melanie technically had the best night, with only that horrid disco sullying an otherwise sturdy set of routines. Still, Melanie is so consistently great that she’s never had a real standout moment — other than perhaps a heart-wrenching solo I really did not want to end.

The momentum coming out of last week seemed to tilt in Sasha’s favor. Tonight, she started strong-ish and ended strong-ish, with a so-so Broadway and an apocalyptic cha-cha sandwiched in between, and a solo that was cool if oddly low to the ground. I fear that mysterious injury robbed her of some needed spark.

Tadd, meanwhile, was spot-on when he said his joyous, offbeat solos helped carry him to the finale, and last night’s was no exception. But he also had the shakiest night by far — it’s not the best sign when the performance you do in (roughly) your own genre isn’t anywhere near as exciting as the one where you end up dancing in heart-covered boxer shorts.

That leaves us with Marko, who had the night’s only Big Moment and a winning, open-hearted solo that I did not want to end either. But then again, he also opened and closed the show with likely his weakest dancing of the season.

Gah. Okay. If pressed, I’d say the smart money is still on Melanie. But who do you think will win, fellow Dance fiends? Who do you want to win? Were you as disappointed by last night’s show as I was? Did you agree with the Top 4’s picks for their favorite routines? (Melanie: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with Neil; Marko: “Turn to Stone” with Melanie; Sasha: Well, she didn’t actually pick one, but she did love when Lady Gaga threw her shoe, and she didn’t protest when Cat picked “Misty Blue” with tWitch; and Tadd: the Vulture dance with Jordan.) And speaking of season 8 highlights, which routines do you most want to see reprised on tonight’s finale?

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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