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'Dancing With the Stars': Shannon improves, Monica missteps

March 25, 2008 |  9:22 am

There are many persistent questions involving public figures. Why, for example, do celebrities insist on driving themselves when they're going out for all-night boozefests? Why do they allow themselves to be filmed for homemade sex tapes? Why do they think that banks won't detect that they're sending money to shell companies set up by high-end prostitution rings?

We may never understand the psychology of public figures, but perhaps we can take a stab at answering one such question: What makes celebrities agree to go on "Dancing With the Stars"? Is it that any publicity is good publicity? Are they drumming up interest in a memoir or promoting a movie? Do they think it'll help revive a flagging career or get rid of those love handles? Is there money involved? Are they just naturally competitive? Are they humiliation-seekers?

Well, if you were to ask Steve Guttenberg, it would be because "Dancing With the Stars" makes the world a better place. He really said that, and he said it right after he received two fives and a six for his mambo. And, you know, there are moments that there might be something to this sentiment, if you replace "world" with "my living room," because the story of the night to me was mostly "improvement."  It's nice to feel, if only for a couple of hours and in a very contained setting, that things are getting better.  All 12 contestants and their partners danced last night, and, for the most part, they showed improvement, even though they were doing very different dances from last week. The other story of the night was -- in a few cases -- a bit of a disconnect between the judges' words and their scores. And occasionally between their sentiments and reality.

Dtws300_2 Let's start with improvement. The two biggest improvers, if I can use that as a word, which Scrabble players would definitely do, were Shannon Elizabeth (at left) and Adam Carolla.

Shannon's scores weren't bad last week, but the quickstep she and Derek pulled off was lively and elegant -- she looked much more at ease and was much more demurely clad. The quickstep, incidentally, is my favorite dance so far: it looks incredibly fun, if perilous. In the rehearsal scenes, we see Shannon bemoaning her lack of cardiac fitness and Derek's forcing her into hiking, but she looks as fit as a fiddle in the actual routine, which included a clever little kickup at the judges' desk. They land a 24/30, which doesn't sound that much different from the 21/30 they got last week, but the routine was significantly better.

Now, last week, I grouped Adam with Penn Jillette as the self-deprecators, and that description is technically true. The thing is, unlike Penn, Adam is actually quite funny in his quips, and I hope he sticks around for a bit. He helped himself this week in his and Julianne's mambo; he still seemed a bit stiff, but he looked as if he was having a great time, and the whole routine was entertaining. Also, the performance ended with Julianne dropping herself into the lap of Jimmy Kimmel, who was in the audience. Len points out the entertainment value -- that part of dancing is being a good dancer, but part of it is being an entertainer. Before receiving his comments, Adam says that he needs to make a safety announcement -- Steve Guttenberg has lit his trailer on fire, is calling himself the Lizard King, and is totally out of control. Tom chortles and recommends that they get their stun guns ready. In the end, the routine gets a score of 19/30, which is up from last week's 15/30.

Most of the contestants improved in one way or another. Jason Taylor took his natural promise and loosened up, and his and Edyta's mambo was fluid, energetic and filled with nifty tricks (spins, dips, etc.), and they wowed the judges enough to get a 27/30 (up from 22/30 last week). Marissa Jaret Winokur (who is shown in the rehearsal scenes crying because she feels she let Tony down last week) doesn't manage to get quite synchronized or perfectly on rhythm for her quickstep with Tony, but the judges appreciate that they do a traditional quickstep (versus last week's cha cha of questionable provenance) and also that Marissa has a fun and energetic presence. They end up with a 21/30, up from last week's 18/30. Mario, last week's best male performer, and Karina practice quickstepping in the sand so that Mario can get down the footwork (which the judges criticized last week). Their dance is solid, although Mario seems so focused that his expression seems glued on. Maybe he's just empathizing with Priscilla. Still, they manage to improve: 26/30, up from 24/30 last week.

It would be hard for Kristi Yamaguchi to improve on her highest-ever first-round score of 27/30 last week, but her mambo with Mark this week is also excellent, perhaps even more so because it strikes me as more of a departure from ice skating than the foxtrot was -- and we see her in the rehearsal scenes flat-out refusing to shake her moneymaker. What she really does better than any of the other contestants is in the synchronization, I think -- she is just never off even a tiny bit from Mark's movements. They get another 27/30, meaning they're still the ones to beat.

The judges' commentary, scores and reality occasionally seemed to diverge this week. Cristian de la Fuenta, performing with Cheryl, improved his posture, and their dance was smooth and sultry, ending with Cristian's nifty somersault over Cheryl. The judges were largely positive, though they made note of some shoddy footwork; nevertheless, I was surprised that the pair received a lower score than last week. It was just one point lower (20/30 versus 21/30), but I thought the performance was better overall -- it just seemed as if Cristian was more at ease.

Priscilla Presley and Louis' mambo received warm words from the judges -- words like glamorous, sexy, alluring and technically accomplished -- but they ended up with a 21/30 versus last week's 24/30. And Penn and Kym's quickstep received accolades from the judges, relatively speaking, but then they received a 17/30, only slightly better than last week's 16/30. I can't help but wonder whether the judges revised their opinions in the time between giving the feedback and announcing the scores because Penn has an inability -- perhaps a tic -- to let anyone else speak or otherwise be in the spotlight for a moment. He interrupted the judges throughout their feedback, and perhaps should have reconsidered his choice to hold a Bruno voodoo doll at the beginning of the routine.

Marlee Matlin and Fabian present a curious case here. While I was impressed by them last week, I could see how some people might think that the judges graded them leniently. This week, I certainly thought this. Marlee does have a good stage presence, and it would be unfair to judge her against Julianne, whose mambo with Adam preceded Marlee and Fabian's quickstep. That said, I just didn't think this was as strong of a dance as the judges scored it, which was 24/30, even better than last week's 22/30. In the rehearsal scenes, we learn that because you don't look at your partner during the quickstep, Marlee and Fabian had to come up with other ways (like pressure on their arms) to communicate during the dance. I think Marlee also decided that as scoring insurance, she should wear a get-up that would show off her rack, and she executed this plan admirably. Still, the dance just seemed choppy to me, though Henry Winkler (perhaps a future contestant?) cheered from the audience. One funny moment occurred in the post-performance interview, when Samantha offered Marlee the mike, which the actress pushed away, and it becomes clear from Samantha's remarks that this is like the 90th time that Samantha has done this when she really needs to be pointing the mike at Marlee's interpreter.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of contestants who did not improve, either in the judges' minds or in mine. Steve, whose mambo with Anna was the first of the evening, had a very stiff body and a very enthusiastic, animated face. That enthusiasm and animation was insufficient this week, and they received a 16/30, lower than last week's 18/30, which, while not particularly high, had at least received more praise.

Monica290 And Monica Seles, God bless her, in photo at right, takes Jonathan with her to Tokyo (where she has some unspecified "engagement") to continue rehearsals. She keeps saying she's having fun -- this may be in their contracts, since everyone says it -- but she looks stressed in rehearsals. And their mambo -- well, as Bruno puts it, she looks as if she's running on an alternating current from Jonathan. The judges all tell her that they appreciate that this is very hard for her to do and doesn't come naturally, but that's sort of like being told by your boss that she appreciates that you don't really understand accounting but are trying so hard to be an accountant -- i.e., you just can't be long for this world. They get another 15/30, landing them squarely in last place. 

Tom and Samantha remind us repeatedly that we, the voters, can keep in the lower-rated contestants and that even the leaders need our support to stay in. Really, I've never felt so empowered as a voter, and I'm not even voting because I do not want to compromise my journalistic integrity, such as it is. For you young people out there, the Jonas Brothers will be on tonight.

So where are we? The clear leaders are Kristi, Jason and Mario. The clear laggards are Monica, Penn and Adam. It's hard for me to say who has the biggest (or, really, most obsessive) fan following, which could obviously affect the results, but I'll go out on a limb and say that Monica and Penn get eliminated this week. What do you think?

-- Sarah Rogers

(Photo courtesy of ABC)

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