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'So You Think You Can Dance': Summer reality TV at its finest

May 23, 2008 |  7:46 am

Dance290 It's tempting for skeptics unfamiliar with "So You Can Think You Can Dance" to write off the show as just more summer filler. It's one of many dance competitions on TV, it's got a rather clunky title and it's produced by the same people as "American Idol," which, to some, had a lackluster season this year. 

However, "SYTYCD" is arguably the best performance competition on TV, let alone during the summer season, and it's the perfect series to cleanse the palate after "Idol." Here are a few reasons why:

• It's contemporary.  "Idol" never likes to verge too much into the present in terms of slang, song choice or general acknowledgment of current events.  On "SYTYCD," the audience is treated to a wide range of contemporary music, dancers addressing issues such as war, racism and death in their performances, and, occasionally, unique vernacular. Last night, for instance, guest judge Mia Michaels told a dancer that he gave her "stank face" (i.e. he was so good that he made her screw up her face as she watched.) 

• The judges. Sure, Mary Murphy has her annoying trademark scream, but other than that, she and producer/creator Nigel Lythgoe are fair, honest judges who actually seem to want to see their contestants do well, even if they don't make it on the show. This may be part of the reason why there are so many repeat tryouts: the judges give critique one season, the dancers take it and come back and try out again. Lythgoe and Michaels seem to have more respect for themselves, the contestants and the audience than judges on other performance competitions. They might have tolerated an Italian lothario who sneered while he trotted out some Michael Jackson moves, and laughed at his sexy arrogance, but that didn't stop Mary from telling him that his moves were "so weak." 

• Low condescension level.  For a show that features several hours of auditions, it is fairly bereft of the blatant "look at me mom, I'm on TV" contestants that are featured prominently on "Idol." This year, the long-haired non-dancer named "Sex" returned for a third season, but Lythgoe refused to call him by his stage name, calling now-David out by saying that he must just like being on TV because he'd seen him try out for other programs. Arguably, of course, the producers could just not have put him on the episode, but "SYTYCD" is also one of the few shows in which the judges acknowledge that there are other programs on television and that the show is not in and of itself reality. Even more impressive though is, by and large, the show avoids patronizing its potentially pitiable contestants, unlike, say, "America's Next Top Model," in which a girl can barely get on the show if she hasn't been abused or been homeless. Last night, a blind woman tried out and brought Michaels to tears with her performance, but the judges, while inspired, simply said that her technique wasn't strong enough, that it would be too difficult for her to stay in the show and that it would be patronizing to put her through to the next round. Perhaps it sounds bizarre to say that this is a positive aspect of the show, but it's simply gratifying for a viewer not to be ordered who to root for. 

Cat140Cat Deeley. At first blush a tall leggy blond host might be easy to hate, but the Brit always seems like she's having fun doing her job and actually enjoys talking to the contestants. Unlike some other reality hosts, it doesn't seem like she drops the mic and walks away when the cameras stop rolling. 

• Oh yeah, the dancing! Unlike on "Idol", it's impossible for the dancers to step back after their performances with a smug smile on their faces or to work up some quick tears to demonstrate how much they were moved by their own time on stage. They're left panting, sweating. These performers actually do put it all out there on the stage, and if the viewers are lucky, they'll get treated to someone like Stephen "Twitch" Boss or Robert Muraine, whose moves are breathtaking and humorous at the same time. 

The show is just about anything a watcher wants it to be: inspirational, beautiful, hilarious, booty-shaking-inducing. If this fourth season is anything like last season, viewers are in for a very fun summer, and for watchers exhausted from "Idol" fatigue, "SYTYCD" is a great antidote.

NOTE: for those of you who missed the premiere, FOX will be rebroadcasting it on Monday at 8 p.m./7 p.m. Central.

-- Claire Zulkey

Photos courtesy of Fox