Tuesday, June 2, 2015

So You Think You Can Dance S12E1

Survivor is one of the longest running Reality TV shows. Clocking in at a whopping 26 seasons, it's easily become a TV staple that doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Part of its longevity is due to its two seasons a year format, part of it to its placement on CBS, and part of it has to do with the show's ever evolving format. The core of the game hasn't changed, and when you get down to it, no matter what you think of the show, it's a pretty brilliant game. Strangers forced to live together and work together to succeed are then forced to turn on each other to advance in the solo game, and are then forced to convince the people they turned on to give them votes for a million bucks. The dynamics shift so often and so completely that it can be hard to keep track of, and it's one of the few places where a person can be rewarded for what would otherwise be seen as despicable behavior. But while those elements remain constant over the years, the road to get there has often changed. The way contestants are chosen, who's competing for the 1st time vs who's back again, things like Exile Island, and the dynamics of setting up the original tribes have all be refined, included, and excluded over the years to keep the product fresh. That seems to be one key to making sure viewers keep coming back.

So enter a show like So You Think You Can Dance. It's a show where young people skilled in one specific thing (dance) get together and compete against each other for America's votes and the right to be named America's Favorite Dancer. There's not much room for improvement on the process. Which is probably why in ten years the only major change to the show's format has been the introduction of the All Stars. But coming into the 12th season of the show, we now have an all new format: Street vs Stage! And after this horrendous first episode, it appears to be as bad of an idea as I assumed it would be back when it was first introduced.

Basically, it seems to go something like this: The contestants are being split up into two teams. The Stage team will be comprised of dancers with formal training in the core genres this show is centered around: contemporary, ballroom, ballet, jazz, etc. The Street team will be self-taught dancers in Hip Hop and....well Hip Hop. I know that Hip Hop will ostensibly include things like Krump and Jookin which we get a nice look at in this episode, but let's be honest, on SYTYCD all of those things fall under the Hip Hop category.

It's horribly obvious to anyone who's watched so much as a single episode of this show that the Stage team will have an unbelievably unfair advantage. They're trained and well versed in multiple types of dance, they're being mentored by the great Travis Wall, and they're generally less likely to spend as much time outside of their comfort zones than the Street team is. What remains to be seen in this format is how the pairs will be formed once we get to the top 20. I have a lot of thoughts about the holes in that as well, but I'll reserve judgement until I see what the producers have come up with. Either way, in the 11 seasons of this show, only 3 Hip Hop based contestants have gone on to win. So one team starts out with an uphill battle ahead of them, and that fact should have been obvious to whoever came up with this ridiculous idea.

Also changed this year is the Judge's Panel. Gone is the staple that was Mary Murphy, and brought in on a weekly basis will be Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo. Abdul should be fine; she can't replace Mary who's high energy might have been grating to some, but who was always more than welcome to me. But she's knowledgeable enough to provide observant, if at times too gentle, critiques. Derulo might be the worst thing to ever happen to this show. He was useless, unhelpful, and too complimentary when he guested last season. This episode proves he doesn't have a dance vocabulary to be of any real use to the dancers. Ostensibly, you could say he was brought on to add a Hip Hop strong judge to the critiques, which will be useful under the new format, but I'd challenge you to give me one good Hip Hop observation he made in the whole two hours.

Instead, what Derulo offers is the chance to steal the spotlight and stage time from the people the show is actually about: the dancers. He gets up twice in this episode and goes on stage: once to sing, and once to dance. No one who watches this show is tuning in to see Jason Derulo. But what makes him an even worse judge is his obvious homophobia. Or maybe homophobia is a strong word, he doesn't make any beyond the pail hateful remarks, but he is clearly and unabashedly uncomfortable by effeminate men. There are two moments in this episode where Derulo's disinterest in feminine men shined through brightly, and both of those moments were so inappropriate and uncomfortable that it left me wondering if watching the season would even be worth it. Nigel's come under fire before for remarks that were just a shade too homophobic to have any place on a show like this one, and the big problem with Derulo being on the panel is that he gives Nigel a way to double down on that kind of behavior. I hate to stereotype too much; the fact is that gay men are just as capable of playing sports as they are of being great dancers, but the fact remains that SYTYCD has seen a large number of clearly gay contestants. So why would you bring in a judge who is seemingly so uncomfortable with homosexuality that he can't even be bothered to give the auditions by these people the benefit of his attention?

Of the episode itself, I'll say this: the audition process is lessened by removing the choreography aspect of the audition. Not everyone deserves to go right to Vegas, and not everyone who doesn't quite make the cut deserves to go right home. The choreography aspect of this stage made the complexity of the show and of dance in general more obvious. Either make it or go home is a process that works on American Idol, but not on here.

And as for the contestants, the only person that left a real impression was Jojo. If she makes it through Vegas, she'll be someone to keep an eye on. But what I really want to talk about is the rhetoric around Steven Ban's audition.

Cat starts with a rundown of what is needed to make it on the Street team, and then they cut to Steven. He's a young, lanky, white guy in glasses and with an undeniable nerd quality. This is something he embraces and plays up for the camera; the music he chooses even has a kind of video game quality to it. And it's all anyone can talk about: he doesn't look like your typical Street dancer. But here's the thing, he's actually good. He's not as great as some of the best Animators we've seen on the show. He's a bit static, and his pops and locks aren't as strong as we've seen. But his tricks and his quality of movement proves he knows what he's doing. In any other season, he'd be complimented and enthusiastically sent on to perform the choreography. Here, all anyone can talk about is how he doesn't "look" like a Hip Hop dancer. All of this is coded language for White. They shroud it in talks of him being a nerd, and he is certainly that, but when you get down to it, what it feels like Abdul is talking about when she says he "need[s] the rest of the 'stuff'' to fill out [his] vocabulary" is that he needs to be black.

The odd thing about this is that I don't know where to place it. Is it racist? You can't be racist against a white guy (this is not a point up for debate, if you disagree, I really don't care, it's a simple fact), but by implying that only black guys are fit to dance in this style, you're certainly implying something that feels pretty racist to me. Realistically, it's probably less about race and more about class. Hip Hop is urban, and I'm sure a white guy who clearly grew up in that kind of urban space wouldn't be insulted for trying out for the Street team. Indeed, I'm sure we'll see white people on the Street team, but more on that later. But even if it isn't about Race specifically, and it is about Class, it all boils down to something really problematic: the team makeup of this season is horribly limiting. The people likely to find themselves on one team or the other will fit into small boxes and it will be impossible to break out of them.

This isn't necessarily something new to this season. The Hip Hop dancers who've done well on this show have often been complimented on how well they dance in other styles for a Hip Hop dancer. This isn't often turned against the typically Stage dancers who then dance Hip Hop, or anything they aren't trained in. Contemporary dancers are generally expected to be good at Ballroom too. When they aren't it's surprising, but when Hip Hop dancers are good at ballroom, that's when the judges are surprised. My expectation is that given the increased number of Hip Hop dancers we'll see this season, we'll have to sit through a lot of this kind of thing, and I can't help but to wonder a bit what fuels it. At what point does "untrained" become code for "poor," and then an extension for "black?"

I don't generally review these early audition episodes of the show, but this year I wanted to change that because I wanted to get these complaints out of the way early. I think the best bet for this season, which honestly might be the last the show sees, is that the talent on display overshadows these format changes. And this is possible since the group of dancers seem to get more talented each year this show airs. And that's the claim to fame for SYTYCD. Viewers keep coming back to this show because they're certain to see even more talented dancers, even more breathtaking routines than they did last year. So while format changes might be what's kept Survivor fresh over the years, maybe this is one instance where what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander. Let other reality competition shows change it up each year; all SYTYCD needs to do is deliver on the high quality we've come to expect and we'll keep coming back.


--I don't intend on reviewing another episode until the Top 20 is set, so I should see you in a few weeks. Unless something really dramatic happens and I have too many thoughts not to make a post.

--There's also a review of this episode up over on AV Club. Oliver and I are pretty much in agreement on this one.

--The final tally after the first two cities is 43 stage dancers and 37 street dancers. We'll see how those dynamics continue as things move forward. On one hand I expect the number of street dancers to always be a bit below stage numbers, but this isn't a very big difference, so there's that at least.

--The power failure was a disappointing ploy for drama. Not that the producers created it just for that reason (although I wouldn't put it past them), but the resolution was a bit sad. Or at least the way they engaged with it was lackluster. I would have preferred to see more for this trimmed down, streamlined audition process.

--Or if that day of auditions was really going to have to be cancelled, then I would have liked to see how the show would have resolved that. I think the people who showed up would have deserved a chance to audition one way or another, and if that was just taken away from them, that would have been fucked up.

--Back to the point I made about the probable racial breakdown of each team. I honestly can't see a way around this ending up being the season of black dancers vs white dancers. It's possible that as the auditions leave the South (this week was Memphis and Dallas),  we'll see a bit more racial diversity, but if there's more then two white people on the Street team or two black people on the Stage team, I'll be shocked. This is a problem on a show that has racial diversity issues to begin with.

--The last performer of the episode was interesting. Not him, himself, because I can't remember anything other than his great body and nice looking ass in those shorts, but he was a contestant last year and Nigel asked him "Why do you think you didn't make the cut last year?" I can't remember ever hearing that question asked before, which is surprising given the number of repeat auditions this show gets, but I like it a lot. And the kid's lack of an easy answer means he probably didn't spend much time thinking about what kept him out of the top 20 and devoting himself to changing that aspect of his technique in order to be better this time around. Either way, it's a question I'd like to see asked more often.

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