Now that's what I call a horse race! The Preakness ain't got nothing on the penultimate Dancing With the Stars, leading to the photo finish on Tuesday. No question about it, in this episode, Shawn Johnson pulled ahead, by way more than a nose (a good thing, since her nose is the size of a Keebler elf). But there's more to winning than one particular heat, and you also have to factor in the unknowable public vote for each couple, plus whatever dark vote-meddling might conceivably get done in the dark by greed-crazed DWTS producers.
What we did see was an excellent contest, with no more obvious losers like Ty Murray to diminish the tension with boring foregone conclusions. Shawn's triumph on the applause-o-meter could be transient. This race is anybody's to win.
At first, it looked like Shawn's contest to lose. On the opening triple paso doble face-off, with all three couples hoofing to the band's bad cover of Pink's "So What," while vaguely Scientological volcanoes erupted onstage, she did worse than her rivals, just 28 points. Though Len took back all the bad things he ever said about Shawn, this time he said she was "full of excitement." Bruno weirdly compared her to the serial killer who hunts serial killers: "You'll turn into Dexter if you go on like that." Carrie Ann, that epitome of emotional gravitas, dinged Shawn for her perceived lack of "emotional commitment," whatever that might mean. In fact, Shawn looked more emotionally committed than anybody: When she lost, she looked woebegone, and when she won, she jumped higher than normal people's head levels.
Still, you had to admit that Melissa Rycroft and Gilles Marini had the edge in the paso doble number. Melissa actually flubbed a turn, losing her a point, but she looked more authoritative than Shawn in her mean, long Matrix-like jacket. For this dance, you have to command your audience's attention, not ask for it. Also, it paid off that Melissa studied ballet and cheerleading instead of gymnastics. Mad judge Carrie Ann cheered Melissa's "soul attachment," if I heard her right, and Bruno more sanely hailed her confidence. A 29 score left Shawn in a sweat. Odd that the Olympic Gold Medalist is the one who always seems the most winded after the dance.
The clear winner of the paso doble was Gilles Marini, with 30 points. He evinced the smooth, jeweled perfection of a fine Swiss watch. Len, whose hawk eye was alert for any sign of hectic incoherence, which he'd nailed Gilles for before, found none this time. "This was full on, it had intensity, good job!" Carrie Ann hailed Gilles' "perfection," proving even madwomen have moments of lucidity. Bruno said he proved he was a "leading man," which should up his movie rate, since his previous role in Sex and the City was that of a dangling man.
But the paso doble number was only passable as a whole. The tune was awful, the costumes ugly and stupid -- what's with those peekaboo men's jackets? -- and the choreography bland as a carob brownie. It was the freestyle segment that took flight, each couple doing their own thing.
And the undisputed champions of the freestyle were Shawn and Mark Ballas. They came out wearing sparkly, eerie masks and what looked like big black Hefty Cinch Sak trash bags, striking a stark mood, then wriggled and hopped out of them and jumped into a routine that combined the best of jive or jitterbug spirit and Shawn's big advantage, gymnastics routines. Only by now, she's got enough dance practice to make it weightless, infectious fun. She and Mark were a terrific team, not just going through rehearsed motions but communicating emotions. It was a conversation -- you flip for me, I flip for you -- a fine job of acting. In a tiny way, it captured a trace of the spirit of Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain.
The crowd's howl made it impossible for the judges not to give them a perfect 30, the same as Gilles' paso doble, only some perfect 30s are more equal than others. "An explosive performance," said Bruno, for once without overstatement. He also called out the acting excellence, the sense of humor, and the synchronicity of their movements, as good in this respect as this season has yet seen. "Youthful! Energetic! Precise!" said Carrie Ann, who also said to Shawn (if I heard her right), "You're such a cute little jabberwockette." I do not know what this is, but evidently it's good. Len, usually a wary stickler for tradition, had not a schoolmasterish syllable to say. "I was afraid I'd make a fool of myself dancing," Shawn shyly confessed backstage. She made a star of herself instead.
Even though the dancing remained on the highest level of the season, the rest of the show was a letdown. Melissa Rycroft did some successful flips herself, but they were cheerleaders' flips, meaningless fillips, skill without style, impersonal. The song she did watered-down hip-hop moves to was C+C Music Factory's immortal "Gonna Make You Sweat," but when Martha Wash's voice belts out "Everybody dance now!" there was nothing in Tony Dovolani's uncharacteristically uninspired steps to second that soaring emotion. They didn't seem to be dancing together, and none of the bits came together into a flowing dance number. Both Bruno and Carrie Ann called it disjointed. Bruno sneered, "I thought I'd never see the Running Man again." Nobody will want to see this dance again, despite its relative skillfulness. The score was 27. This could be the moment Melissa blew it. She seems to have a talent for coming tantalizingly close to the top prize on a reality show and then snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Gilles and Cheryl Burke ended the episode on an anticlimax. Their dance, set to the Flashdance theme "What a Feeling." Now, I'm fond of the tune and the movie, partly because my ex used to bathe naked with Jennifer Beals when they were tots. (Shut up, it was innocent.) I'm rooting for a Jennifer Beals revival. Alas, this dance won't do it. I've never seen a more routine routine. Gilles and Cheryl wore diagonally slashed tops, but they inspired no desire to peek into them, which was the whole point of Jennifer's original ripped look. There was no feeling in this dance. Only empty rhythms, hackneyed moves, and Cheryl's showboat personality hogging the spotlight, making Gilles a pallid backup man. They're so technically good it had to get a 28. They're going to have to get better tomorrow night to win this thing.
The only really good thing about the segment was host Tom's joke about Len's pro-Gilles comment. "Last week Len said he wished his paddle went to 11. What guy hasn't said that?" The best Gilles-related penis joke yet!
So it all comes down to tomorrow night. With the same night's score as Gilles, Shawn's got her eyes on the prize. Who's going to take it away?