Tuesday, July 14, 2015

So You Think You Can Dance S12E7

I've long believed that if you don't enjoy a story, whether it be a book or TV show, you should give up on it. Life's too short to waste it reading books you don't enjoy or watching season after season of a TV show you're no longer into. Starting a new series is not the equivalent of a marriage. There are no vows, no promises, not even really lofty notions about eternity. It's more of a simple handshake deal. You sit down and you say, "I'm going to give you so much of my time, and in return you're going to entertain me to whatever level I feel I require to be entertained. If you fall short of that task, then I'm leaving you for another form of entertainment and you can't complain; if you wanted me to stick around, you should have been better." It's an odd one way street whereby you don't owe a show anything, but that show owes it to you to be entertaining and to contort itself into whatever odd shape your desires dictate in the moment. But with that being said, I'm only human and I come with my own set of loyalties. So when So You Think You Can Dance announced a set of changes that I felt sure would ruin the show, instead of giving up on it on the spot I decided to give it another go. A show that's built up some capital with me by being good in the past will inevitably last longer and get a stay of execution or two before I give up on it all together. I watched two of the audition episodes this year before I decided to give up on that and check in when the competition started in earnest, and then I decided that I'd give the season a fair shake of about two or three episodes before I decided for sure if I'm going to stick out this 12th and probably final season. After the Top 20 Showcase episode, I'm still on the fence, but not for the reasons I expected to be.

As I mentioned last year, the Top 20 episode is one of my favorites. In the past, when Fox had more faith in the show and give them more time to do their thing, it was an episode that served to simply show off what the contestants could do. Freed from the requirement of dancing for America's votes and from the constraints of having to dance outside of their given styles, the contestants skilled and lucky enough to make it to the Top 20 were allowed to just let loose to some great choreography that was often more about the beauty and the joy of dance than anything else. Now that the showcase has been integrated into the competition, I like it a little bit less, but I still respect the place it holds. This year it's still a solid showcase of strong dancers dancing well, but it's not quiet up to the level of previous years for a very simple reason: The choreography is lazy and uninspired.

When I found out that everyone in Vegas would only be dancing within their own styles, or more specifically that the "Street" dancers would only be dancing in Hip Hop styles and the "Stage" dancers would be dancing in all the different styles, I decided not to watch the auditions. As a result, I walked into this episode not knowing anything about any of the contestants except for Jaja who I loved last year and therefore is my early favorite, and I fully expected the Street dancers to enter this stage of the competition at a distinct disadvantage. In the past, the Vegas round was the most difficult aspect of the audition because it was supposed to prepare the dancers what what they'd be facing in the weeks to come. Here it was lightened in order to coddle them towards instead of away from success. Simply put, if the Street dancers had to dance Ballroom at these early stages, they would have been eliminated in large numbers leaving us without a team of ten in the top 20. So my expectation was that they'd reach this point without an ability to even perform choreography and then get tossed into the deep end against contestants who can do whatever is asked of them. On the one hand, that's not the case as the Street dancers clearly have the better set of performances on the night and take an early lead in the competition. But on the other hand, were any of them actually really challenged and pushed hard enough, or critiqued firmly enough by the judges, to make a fair accounting?

There are a few places were I think the routines lived up to this stage of the competition. The first of which is Brian Friedman's routine for Alexia, Hailee, and Marissa. It's a type of routine that I don't generally care for: sexy girls being sexy for sexiness' sake, but he choreographs it is killer high heels and has them doing a lot of moves in those shoes that should have broken their ankles. To their credit, the girls move around in those shoes well, I only noticed one point when someone looked like she was about to fall, but she caught herself just in time. But the problem here is really that the routine is sexy, the costuming is sexy, the shoes are sexy, and then on top of that the girls decided to pull overtly sexy faces too. It's one thing too much and the judges are quick to tell them to dial it back and not try too hard to be sexy when you've got so many elements making you sexy already. In spite of that one aspect to the execution, I thought the choreography was suitably strong for dancers good enough to make it to the top 20.

Likewise, Darion and Jim's Ballet routine featured a high level of difficulty. They weren't quite as in sync as they should have been, and they noticeably missed the connection on their first lift, but given how difficult the entire routine was, I'm willing to give them a bit of a pass. I didn't think it deserved the standing-O the judges gave it, but it was nice nevertheless. The two group numbers that closed out the night were also impressive and featured a high level from the choreographers. Team Street going last was exactly the right call as they blew the roof off the building and solidified their round one victory.

Everything other than those four performances, however, left something to be desired. It felt like the choreographers were going easy on the contestants in an effort to ease them into the competition, but the result was uninspiring and uninteresting numbers. Even Travis Wall's number was surprisingly lackluster, and that's from someone that I've praised again and again as a genius and the best thing to ever come out of this show. This week his story was simple and overdone, and the movements either didn't suit the story or weren't executed well enough by Edson and Kate to convey the story. It's a strange misstep in what otherwise should have been a home run.

To make matters worse, the judges overpraise the Street dancers at every turn while giving (understandably) harsh critiques to the Stage dancers. The other standing-O of the night came at the end of Chris Scott's number for Jaja, Lily, Asaf, and Burim, and that was horrible. Or maybe horrible is a bit strong, but it certainly wasn't anything to leave your seat over. Scott starts the video package by saying he doesn't really have much of a plan beyond wanting to showcase what each of the dancers is good at. Which......ok? I think I've made this analogy before and if I have, bear with me, but there's something that happens when a coach makes a guts call in sports: if it works, he's a genius, if it fails, people will be calling for him to be fired. There's something purely results based in sports that renders individual decisions incapable of being judged on their merits alone; it's all about if it worked or not. Chris Scott's decision to not come up with any kind of story or put forth any distinct choreography didn't work. And then the routine was filmed in a manner that left each individual dancer on stage as pretty much the only person in the frame while they were dancing. So if there were moments of synchronicity or of two people dancing against each other at the same time, we didn't really get to see them. The moves the dancers executed were nice, but there was no sense of great scale or purpose to it all, just four people on stage doing their own solos, and that's not what this show is about.

Compared to the Pharside and Phoenix routine for Virgil, Yorelis, and Ariana about a man trying to get into the pearly gates and being courted by one angel and one devil, the Chris Scott routine looks like amateur hour. Granted even this routine wasn't my favorite. I didn't find the difficulty level to be too high, though it was still higher than a lot of the other routines of the night, and there certainly weren't enough tricks or lifts in it to keep my attention for long. But it at least had purpose and showed that the choreographers were thinking about what story they wanted to tell and how they could both challenge the dancers to step outside of themselves while still showing off their talents. After a string of solid numbers last year, Pharside and Phoenix are really stepping up as a choreography duo that can stand toe to toe with NappyTabs, and that's a good thing.

This first episode of the competition wasn't enough to measure the show by. The real test will come next week when the dancers are paired up and forced to dance outside of their given styles. But even through the first hour some of the problems are still seeping through. Jason Derulo has yet another performance in this episode. It's not the first of the season and I'm willing to bet it won't be the last, and I'm already seriously beyond bored with him. His critiques have at least gotten better, and he was the only judge to fairly criticize the first routine of the night, so I'll give him that much. The new format has the dancers running off stage into the loving arms of their respective mentors after each tongue lashing from the judges, and then we cut to their very brief (seriously I think it was like three seconds) conversation with their mentor as they respond to what the judges said and he rushes through some kind of advice. Listen, I love tWitch and Travis Wall, but this is horribly fucking pointless. In order for this to work out, they need to better justify these two being such a big factor in the show. Travis choreographs one of his team's performances, but tWitch doesn't, and the advice we see them giving throughout the episode amounts to nothing. I'm hoping that we discover next week that the two of them have a hand in deciding the pairs and maybe even choosing dance styles for those pairs in the weeks to come. If they have insight into what these kids will be good at, I'd like to see them use it to make the show better and also to challenge the contestants to do better. But I'm not optimistic. In the mean time, it just looks like their going to be sticking around to wait in the wings and to pretend to be important. Much like So You Think You Can Dance's 12th season is shaping up to do if things don't change.

Random Thoughts:

--Asaf is the only dancer who seems to be too far out of his depths during this stage of the competition. And since he's only in the top 20 to fill out a spot vacated by a dancers who was injured in the last minute, I guess that's to be expected. I must say I found it pleasantly surprisings that he was the only dancer out there seemingly incapable, or maybe just unwilling, to pick up choreography.

--Megz is another early favorite of mine. She's beautiful and very expressive in her performance. She and Jaja are two reasons the female Street dancers are being so heavily praised this season, but it's not praise that's misplaced at all. From what I can see, the girls on the street team are much better than everyone else at this stage of the competition. It still remains to be seen how they'll do in other styles, but I'm hoping they stick around for awhile.

--Is it just me or are the Stage team boys really really gay this year? It just seemed like each time any one of them opened their mouths, a purse fell out. It's not a judgement, simply an observation. In the past, it's seemed like even a lot of the gay contestants (Travis and Benji both come to mind) were at least passable enough that you might not have known they were gay unless you were paying attention. This year....not so much.

--This year is also short on dreamy boys. No cute and derpy Kent Boyd, no one with the more adult sex appeal of Dmitry Chaplin, and certainly no one as adorable and bear cub-ish as Will Thomas. No one stood out to me this year and that's odd for this show. Who will the young girls who make up so much of the voting viewership of this show vote for?

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