"So You Think You Can Dance" Returns, Has It Jumped the Shark?

I'm watching the season premiere (post-auditions) of, "So You Think You Can Dance" and like any good critic, I'm already annoyed. Not with the dancers, with the judges. I've been a rabid fan of the show from it's initial season, especially Nigel Lythgoe, who I find to be perfectly lovely. A kind and savvy version of Simon Cowell. But this season is very different...

For starters, they've radically changed the format. Instead of a top 20, there is now a top 10, giving audience members fewer dancers to connect with and leaving no breathing room whatsoever for that odd dancer that may not have polish yet, but has charisma in spades. (A la, Ryan or Evan, the extraordinary Broadway dancers from seasons past.) By cutting it down to a top 10, they've really homogenized the final field of dancers, probably under the intense pressure that they had to choose dancers who could do every style of dance instead of taking a chance on some who might be average at a few styles but truly fantastic at one.

Where do the other dancers come from? They're favorites from seasons past. I have mixed feelings about this, starting with the fact that half the fun of the show is based on its Cinderella story premise. Like American Idol, viewers want to see that talented individual plucked from obscurity and given the chance to live their dream. It's cathartic and exciting. Also, of note, many of the returning favorites were dancers that were frequently told they were amazing at one style and not so great at the rest. There will be no such dancer from this year's top 10. We don't get that cool X-Men feel to the cast this year that we have in years past, where we had experts across all fields, individuals for fans of a certain style of dance to really root for.

I like seeing some of the best dancers from seasons past, but they've already had their chance and are all likely working dancers already. A retrospective episode could've brought us up to speed on what they've been up to since their seasons, but to see them return feels almost like seeing a college kid come back to their high school to watch all the football games. It sounds cool, but it's always kind of a let down because you can't help but wonder the entire time, "What are they doing here?" (Trust me, I would know. I was totally that girl.) That's not the dancers fault, it's the show's fault for putting them somewhere where no matter how amazing they are, they'll feel out of place and make the current contestants' journey even more difficult. They don't even let the dancers from seasons past stay on the stage for feedback and they have no real motivation to do well, they don't have that "dance or die" spirit, because they've been through this all before. They're professionals, so I'm sure they'll help the current contestants as much as possible, but there's a strange sort of...inert feeling to them being there. It just feels wrong.

However, I suspect the dancers from seasons past are here because of a possible ratings drop in the last season. I don't know for sure if this is the case, but if there was a ratings drop, it's because they rushed the two prior seasons back to back instead of waiting a year, creating oversaturation in the media. We barely had time to grab our tickets for the live show from Jeanine's winning season before they were already airing audition episodes for the next season. Which essentially rendered the contestants time in the limelight inert. It didn't seem fair.

So now they've restructured, and listen, I'm not anti-restructuring. But you don't take a show about dancing and take away half of the cast. It's a bad move.

All that aside, the judges are already up to some of their old, and less favorable, tricks. Only instead of them popping up every now and then, the entire evening seems to be a showcase of impartiality. I know TV judges aren't exactly known for being fair, but that's what I've always loved about, "So You Think You Can Dance". It was about the dancing, not the appearance of a dancer or their given genre, because dancers are challenged to try multiple genres. Tonight, it seems to be all about the choreography and the likability of the contestants. There's the "aw shucks" Kent, who got rave reviews and chuckles from everyone on the stage, mostly because he seems to be playing a character. He almost seems to be, quite frankly, playing dumb.

Other dancers who went before him were judged far too harshly on their choreography, which was entirely out of their hands, and told they needed to dig deeper emotionally. That seemed especially humorous to me coming off of the dance choreographed to, "Oh Yeah", the song from the end credits of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". Like a lot of fine art competitions, the judges favor the sad and dramatic and write off the more cheerful material as lacking depth or merit.

Which brings me to my next point. Sonya Tayeh's choreography. Sonya is a highly gifted choreographer, she truly is. So it's not that I don't take her seriously. But her first dance of the season was, at times, laughable with it's constant convulsions. She had her dancers shaking as though they had a medical problem and because she chose sad music, the judges were absolutely falling all over themselves and in tears after the dance talking about how this dance set the bar for the season and was just more amazing than anything they had ever seen, blah, blah, blah... I know avant garde is impressive. But after all these seasons, it becomes it's own brand and then almost becomes self-satirical.

The problem with that is, that's what they always say after a Sonya dance, and because most of her dances are extremely similar, they're becoming formulaic. They are amazing, she is an incredible choreographer, but it's become expected, the luck of the draw that if a dancer gets a Sonya routine, the judges will fawn all over them and tell them they can do no wrong. When a dancer gets an upbeat routine from a choreographer in another genre, they are almost always told they lack depth.

The truth is, "So You Think You Can Dance" may have become a caricature of itself. Maybe not, it's too early to tell. But the show is sliding into formula for me. Even the dances are becoming predictable. There's the dance with the door or window, the dance with the bed, the caveman dance, the convulsing Sonya dance (usually about addiction or heartbreak), and the trick dances, random cultural folk dances seemingly brought in for no reason at all other than to stump some unlucky dancer. It's odd to know the choreographers so well that even non-professionals will be able to guess what's going to happen. (In Sonya's dance, for example, you can expect awkward jerky movements, sad faces, tons of lifts, and lots of grabbing at the head and face.)

Genres of dance, in and of themselves, are these massive wells, deep and wide enough to bring all types of plotlines and stories to the stage, but SYTYCD, or it's constant slate of choreographers, seem to be dry of fresh ideas. This is not even a fair assessment on my end, it shouldn't be the responsibility of a handful of choreographers to show the breadth and width of a single art form every week. But just imagine what American Idol would be like if every pop song had to be by Madonna, every rock song by the Rolling Stones. There's a similar effect happening on SYTYCD right now. Every contemporary dance is Sonya or Mandy Moore. Each genre has one or two choreographers or teams of choreographers that they use every single week. It gets stale after several seasons. I think the judges think they are asking more of their contestants, but really, they're constricting them creatively by forcing new contestants to do similar routines in every way to all those that have gone before them.

New contestants should have a new chance so that they don't have to suffer constant comparisons, so that America and the judges can evaluate each constestant on their own merits, not which formula they've ended up with each episode. It's like spinning a wheel, we know they'll get something very specific, sad sonya, peppy ballroom, sexy hip-hop, tongue-in-cheek broadway. Let's change it up! Mix new tones and emotions with each genre of dance! Broadway can be sexy, hip hop can be funny or sad, any of these genres can be anything at all. But where's the variety?

If they wanted to change the show, why not bring in a slew of new choreographers, change them every week even? What was so amazing about the show initially was that it was bringing something to television that nobody had ever seen before, but this season already resembles so closely seasons past, even in the first night, from costumes to choreography to comments from the judges, that I could've been watching a re-run. You would think that they would go to the source in order to bring new life to the show. The DANCING.

But like so many other shows, they probably wanted to do what was safe. Bring back favorite dancers, use similar music, the same choreographers, even stagnant lighting design. I still love Nigel and I still love the show. Even if it stays stagnant, I'll watch because bringing dance to television could never be wrong, no matter how familiar I am with the show. But for long time fans, this season may be a tedious one. Especially with the in-near-constant-tears Adam Shankman and the sometimes overbearing and self-important Mia Michaels playing more prominent roles.

I can only hope that the judges will realize that if they're not seeing what they want out of their dancers, who are all extremely talented, that they'll make a change in the choreographers, even from time to time and try to see their own competition with a fresh pair of eyes. They would do well to remember that they should be judging the dancing and not having personal reactions in response to their own particular tastes in music or style. If it hasn't already, the show is in serious danger of jumping the shark...thoughts?

To get up to speed and see video from this season, click HERE for the show's official website.