Dancing With the Stars Recap: Melissa Rycroft Feels No Pain

Psst! Guess who's back from the dead on Dancing With the Stars, and who's got one more night to live? Aww, you guessed. Judges swooned over Melissa Rycroft, who taped up her ailing rib and shook her chest so hard it's amazing she didn't break another one, and Ty Murray coasted just about as far as he can on the title of Most Improved. On Tuesday, they'll tell him, "Git along, little dogie."Except for Ty, the level of competition was surprisingly high. Right out of the gate, Shawn Johnson earned a standing ovation for a nimble quickstep. She looked like she was having actual fun, a big shift from her usual grinding, nervous earnestness. I'm pretty sure I saw her crying during the tougher moments of rehearsal. Shawn! There's no crying in ballroom!But she'd have shed tears of bliss if she'd foreseen her 27 score on the quickstep, which could've been a 30 if only Mark Ballas hadn't choreographed it to break the rules: They broke the hold to play to the audience. "Your best dance ever," opined judge Carrie Ann, "but I have to take the point off because you broke the rules." On the paso doble, which I was expecting to be Shawn's downfall, she got a 29. "Girlfriend, you delivered!" trilled Carrie Ann. Len earned his biggest boo yet for dissing her paso doble as not "overexciting." The night's score was a personal best for Shawn, and she got overexcited as only a 17-year-old can, yelling "Yay!" and jogging in place. No wonder judge Bruno compared her to Sporty Spice. How did she pull off this performance? Mark's canny, manipulative sadism: Before they performed, "He kept trying to make me really mad." This guy should be a director.Ty and Chelsie Hightower were better than anyone would've predicted from his first episodes. Oddly, it was the easygoing judges who were hardest on him, while Len, the Ty-hating hanging judge, gave them their top score for a tango Ty danced as if trying to fling dried cow pies from the toes of his boots. "You captured the flavor and the essence of the dance," said Len, his standards suddenly out the window. "You produced your best dance." Best wasn't good enough -- 25 points -- and Ty's 21-point rumba was worse, because everybody had to do a solo and his was the stiffest of the evening. The show tried to perk up his image by staging a pre-dance routine showing Jewel asking him to come to bed and him refusing, because he has to study dance videos. On the floor, they had him saunter up to Jewel in the audience and do the repressed-cowboy equivalent of a lap dance just for her. "I'm hopin' that my solo pays dividends later," he said with a smutty grin. Jewel fanned her face, suggesting that come next bedtime she won't take no for an answer.Len kept his Mr. Martinet-turned-Mr.-Nice-Guy face on for Lil' Kim and Derek Hough, slapping them a 9 for a waltz that had a false move or two, but plenty of sweet twirls and way more grace than anyone expected. (Though Carrie Ann and Bruno only ponied up an 8, and Bruno bitchily sniffed, "You tried to be a lady but you're more comfortable being a tramp.") Everybody acted shocked, especially Kim, but obviously she really is more comfortable as a tramp. Part of what's charming about her attempt to play the ethereal, distant princess is her slutty, manic awkwardness.And when she danced the salsa, her inner slut was sublime, if still manic and awkward. She shook it like a Polaroid picture, leaning all the way back and landing on Derek with consummate skill, as if she'd had plenty of practice landing on her back. Her salsa score of 27 seemed a bit high-ish, but that dance is definitely up her bootilicious alley. "Not in the history of this show have I seen a booty shake like that!" said Carrie Ann. OK, let's have a moratorium on the word "booty" in describing Kim. Or at least lose "bionic booty." Len compared her to a British confection of suet and currants, but I'm afraid "bionic booty" is the phrase that will stick with her forever, even when her booty exceeds Kirstie Alley's.

As always, Cheryl Burke was vicious to Gilles Marini in rehearsal. "You look like a monster!" she carped. "I hate that!" Then, on the dance floor, she was as fawning as a porn star. Their fox trot to "Fever" was a bit over the 98.6 line, and they rolled around in their rumba to "Sexual Healing" to the point that Bruno called out for penicillin. "Ravaged by the Savage!" he crowed. He also compared the routine to Showgirls -- the ultimate compliment, and put-down. And that's the problem. He's sexy, but his dance chops have lost the element of surprise, leaving him little but sex to rely on. Gilles proved a startlingly good dancer at the season's start, but his drama is wearing thin, and his focus is a trifle uneven. Despite the 29-point fox trot and 27-point rumba tonight, I think he's not going to go the distance on this show. On the other hand, half the housewives in America are furiously punching up votes for Gilles right now on cell phones that keep slipping out of their sweaty palms as they slip right off their chairs.I know it looked bad for injured no-show Melissa Rycroft last week, but she looks like the inevitable winner now. It's not that she's the best dancer -- Gilles probably has the edge -- but her 27-scoring waltz was perfectly competent, if not resoundingly confident, and in her perfect-30-point samba, her hooters flew faster than Kim's booty ever did. Backstage, when Carrie Ann proclaimed her samba "Flawless!" Melissa almost flung herself right out of her top with joy. Melissa's not-so-secret weapon is her vulnerability, her non-poker face displaying her emotions in capital letters, her girl-next-door niceness and double sympathy vote as spurned bachelorette and game girl dancing through the pain out of sheer pleasure to be in the running. Except for a certain bachelor, who can resist her? Not judges, or studio audiences, or home voters. As Chicago Tribune DWTS critic Ross Werland brilliantly observes, "I suspect that Jason 'The [Idiot] Bachelor' Mesnick, who spurned the reality-TV contestant, now sits in a dark closet somewhere, repeatedly conking himself in the forehead with a ball-peen hammer."

And if Gilles beats Melissa? Werland can explain that too: "This guy could make retching sexy."