Tuesday, July 28, 2015

So You Think You Can Dance S12E8 & 9

An odd thing about reality tv in general is how dependent on outside forces it is to be "good." The participants have to be interesting, and in the case of SYTYCD also talented, you have to be able to form an attachment to any number of them, and then the "right" people have to be sent home each week to allow the drama to remain compelling and to leave the viewers feeling vindicated that the "right" person has won by whatever metrics such a thing is being judged. After so many episodes this season, I'm shocked by just how many ways this show is failing in those areas.

First off the good, because there is still good. Virgil and Hailee's number that closed the competition routines last night. It's the best thing that's happened this season. My jaw was on the floor, I cheered throughout it all, and couldn't help but to be amazed. Both of them danced it wonderfully, and I have to agree with Travis' point that Hailee was the best person from his team for this number. The two of them together were the perfect duo for the routine and they worked hard to start to distance themselves from the competition.

The number before it staring Neptune and Kate was equally impressive on the other end of the spectrum. The judges can wax poetic about the dancers dancing out of their styles each performance all they like. The fact of the matter is that that's always been the bread and butter of this show. So while it's impressive that Hailee was capable of dancing Hip Hop so well and that Neptune delivered on contemporary as well as he did, it's no more impressive than the many cross-style performances that came over the 10 years before it. But that's not to diminish the number itself which was just brilliant. Neptune and Kate had a chemistry that we haven't seen thus far in the competition because no one's danced together enough to build it. That they can just fall into a new performance and sell the emotion on such an astounding level is to be commended. That's not even mentioning how skillfully it was danced. Kate's skill level and training brought a crispness to her movement that Neptune lacked, and that was all for the betterment of the piece. I got the impression watching them that they were really two different people from two different worlds, but that they honestly loved each other and the entirety of their relationship made sense. Sometimes when two contemporary dancers get together in a routine like this one, their combined skill level leaves it feeling a bit homogenized and like they're both just two halves of the same performer. But there's something about the difference in the quality of Neptune and Kate's movement that really added an extra layer to the story that deeply resonated with me.

Sadly, I think that's where the good ends thus far. The first episode with everyone dancing outside of their comfort zones wasn't as bad as I expected, or as bad as this episode for that matter, but it hasn't been on par with where we're used to seeing this show at a comparable point in previous seasons. The bulk of the dancers, and that's on both teams, simply aren't as good as they usually are. The Stage dancers seem to be low on personality and performance ability. It feels almost as though the 10 of them that made up the top 20 were chosen specifically for that purpose. Whereas the Street team has personality in spades and very little technique and skill. This was expected from the moment the theme of this season was announced, but the failings on the Stage team are more surprising. I think it was orchestrated this way simply because if you took the best Street dancers you could find and pitted them against the best Stage dancers in this show's history, they'd be slaughtered. So conceits were made on both sides to try and keep things leveled. The results are just bad performances that can't solely be blamed on the less trained Street competitors.

Darion going home last week after his technically interesting but ultimately bloodless Ballet number with Jim and his seriously lagging number with Hailee and Yorelis was evidence of this. Here's a classically trained Ballet dancer with all the technique in the world. And we've seen Ballet dancers on this show go far when they let their personality and performance level fly. But Darion didn't have that second level. In fact, he was so lacking in being able to bring out any emotion that I was left wondering if he'd have been on the show without the need to keep the Stage team down closer to the Street team's level to create a fairer competition.

"Would they be here if it were just a regular season?" was a question I expected to be asking of the Street dancers, but not of the Stage dancers. But that's not to say that it isn't fair to ask of the Street team too. In the cases of Burim and Asaf, the answer is clear: No they wouldn't be. Asaf at least shouldn't even be on this season seeing as how the judges cut him only to bring him back to fill in for a last minute injury. Burim at least has a leg up on Asaf in his skill and his ability to pick up choreography, but he's not at the level of some of the better B-Boys we've seen in the past (Hok and Legacy come to mind), so while I think he might have been a good choice for this year, I still ask if he would have made the cut in seasons previously. And yet for all of that, the judges decide to keep Asaf and to lose Burim this week? Over the years, I've seen some really confusing choices be made on this show, but one of the things that generally kept me watching was that those choices were usually made by the voters and then rectified by the judges. The judges' ability to decide who from the bottom three vote getters would be going home until the top 10 was formed was one of the things that always set this show above others. And while they haven't always been perfect, they've at least often made their decision with a level of understand-ability. Not this time. And the lack of explanation on their part doesn't help to make this seem like a reasonable choice either.

How can anyone justify keeping Asaf after he turns in what can only be described as the worst performance of the night. The Cha-Cha routine he was given was even streamlined and simplified for him and he still managed to make it slow and boring and lifeless. The fact is Asaf isn't a strong enough dancer for this competition, and instead of admitting that and sending him on his way, the judges subject us to him for at least another week. The choreographers don't know what to do with him during group numbers, which is why he's always in the back or off to the side and never focused on from the cameras. And he's hurting his partners each week by not allowing them to let lose and just dance for fear that he might not be there to catch them when needed. Keeping him around at this point is both boring and dangerous, and yet he stays because he tries really hard and the judges like the idea of seeing his overall arch when everything is said and done. This isn't a competition to find the best sob story or the most improved dancer, it's about finding the best, or at least America's favorite, dancer, and the judges just undercut that in a big way.

Oddly enough this is also reflected in their decision to cut Moises instead of Edson. Neither of them danced particularly well this night, but Moises proved last week, at least to me, that he's got more performance ability than I expected. He's maybe the most technically sound Stage boy left in the competition, but the way he was capable of bringing out a strength and masculinity that I didn't think he had last week won me over on his performance ability. Conversely, Edson hasn't. In his number this week, I didn't buy for a second that he wanted either of the two girls he was dancing with, and since his character was at the center of a love triangle with them, that was important. But after a lackluster Bollywood routine last week and an unbelievable performance this week, he somehow manages to stick around while Moises is sent packing. It's two bad decisions in one night from the judges and it leaves me thinking that they're more interested in keeping up with their theme than they are in presenting the stellar level of dance we're used to seeing from the show.

It all boils back down to what I said in my very first review of the season; the show is trying to change fundamental aspects of itself, and in doing so it's losing its identity and not picking up a better one to replace it. The Stage v Street concept isn't without it's strengths. The group numbers that have been closing the night have been consistently stellar in my opinion. And their willingness to get rid of contestants without considering gender opens the door for more same-sex pairings. Granted it's a door they don't seem at all interested in walking through as each episode has seen groups of three and four dancing instead of the traditional duos (which has also been the show's loss). But we've still reached a point where there are five girls and three guys on each team. And that's understandable since the girls are so much better this year than the boys. But instead of just having that happen, they need to capitalize on it and do something with those dynamics. What this show doesn't need are more crowded and convoluted routines like Stacey Tookey's number for Derek, Jaja, and Alexia. That didn't make sense and wasn't very interesting to watch.

These routines also speak to the other thing the show has lost: the strong storylines born from the chemistry (or lack of same) of the early pairings of dancers. Being paired together gave the dancers incentive to do their best to help their partner as well as themselves, and it gave us those cute but silly video packages where the dancers would tell us something special about their partners. Instead we're left with very little idea of who the contestants are, and therefore left without much of an ability to latch on to anyone to really root for. Beyond Virgil and Jaja, I couldn't tell you who the Street performers are. Same goes for the Stage team now that Moises is gone. I know Hailee's name after her number last night, but prior to that I wouldn't have recalled her.

So if we know next to nothing about the contestants, and the people who were allowed into the season aren't that talented, and the wrong people are being sent home week after week, then what does this season of SYTYCD have going for it? Nigel remarked at the end of Virgil and Hailee's performance that when this show turns 20, it would be a performance they'd still be talking about. The hard truth is that this show probably won't make it past its 10th birthday, never mind its 20th, and as I watch each episode thinking these are the last we'll ever see, I'm left wondering how we're going to remember the show. They made it a point to look back over the first 10 years during that one hour long special last week, but this season isn't the capper to that remarkable journey, it's just the last death rattle of the end.


--Speaking of the one hour special from last week, how much of a hot mess was that? I don't want to throw it under the bus too bad, but one hour wasn't enough, the current contestants dancing solos wasn't needed at all, and the constant toss ups to Ryan Seacrest about his new show were pointless and took up way too much time. It left something that should have been a wall to wall celebration of what came before feeling empty and rushed. And I also had a problem with Paula and Jason getting to pick performances to see again. They've been there for all of two days and they get a vote? If there was ever a time to bring back Mary Murphy and Mia Michaels, and Lil C, and Debbie Allen, and all the people who've made this show what it is today, this was it. The producers and Fox could have done better; this show deserved better.

--Last week, Nigel had a lot of glowing things to say about Jaja and Jim's performance and about how remarkable it was to see a Ballet dancers and a Hip Hop dancer together making a great performance. He went on and on about it as if this was the sole doing of the Street v Stage conceit, and the entire time I kept thinking "But that's what the Alex Wong and tWitch performance was, and it was a million times better than whatever we just watched." But he didn't even make mention of that piece of history. And then the very next night we get to see that performance again and I felt validated.

--The twitter save thing is another interesting change to the format that I want to like but I'm not sure I think it's being used to the best of its ability. I guess restricting the tweeting to the last 5 minutes makes a level of sense, but I think allowing people to do it throughout the show would encourage live tweeting of the episodes and get the word out even more about the show on social media. But in order to do that effectively, they'd probably have to reveal who the bottom 6 were at the top of the hour, and we already know that that doesn't really work, so I don't know. Either way, it feels to me like a good idea that just needs a little more refining.

--Pharside and Phoenix have been wonderful additions to the ranks of SYTYCD choreographers. I've enjoyed just about every routine they've made over the last couple seasons, and they're winning streak continues into this week.

--I can't express how upset I am over Burim going home. Not that I think he's top 10 material or anything, but that they had the prime excuse to just get rid of Asaf and they didn't take it bugs the shit out of me. Plus, I'll miss his beautiful blue eyes and cute little accent.

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