Harsh headlines from the real world impinged upon the typically escapist Dancing With the Stars this week. Was it Afghanistan? The economy? A crazy man with a balloon trying to get his sons a date with Cheryl Burke? Nope -- it was the flu.
With flu-ridden Derek Hough laid low for several crucial days of rehearsal, the recently eliminated Maksim Chmerkovskiy was called upon to step in as the temporary partner for Joanna Krupa who, like the other contestants, was already facing her toughest week, with two dances to learn. Strangely enough, what might at first have seemed bad luck could end up helping Krupa. She was the final dancer on Monday night, and the Derek crisis was teased all evening long. What's more, on a night where everybody fared well -- there was no individual score lower than 6 or collective score lower than 21 -- having the support of the fans of two popular male pros could be just the edge Krupa needs to move on this week.
The final ten were called upon to perform either the paso doble or the Argentine tango with their partner, and the night climaxed with some '70s cheesy goodness in the form of a group dance, the hustle. At the end of the evening, the overall picture was as murky as it has been all season. Michael Irvin, the consensus pick as the weakest remaining dancer, had by far his best night on the floor and showed off the sort of crowd-pleasing antics that voters should remember. And while Mya has been the most impressive and consistent performer this season, the judges placed someone else ahead of her on Monday, and seem to be taking turns promoting other dancers as possible threats to her inevitability.
The big winner Monday was Donny Osmond -- not that he seemed in any danger coming into the night, unlike last week's surprise, Melissa Joan Hart. But thus far, the judges had treated him as comic relief rather than a real threat to win the competition. That changed after his Argentine tango with Kym Johnson, which was flawless if lacking real heat. A good score was deserved, but incredibly, Osmond received the best numbers so far this season, a 29, in the process becoming the first man in Season Nine to score a 10 (from Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba). Tonioli congratulated Osmond on turning into "Donny Darko," although following last week's estrogen-heavy leaderboard, one wonders if there wasn't a concerted effort by the judges to push a male contender this week.
There were two other clear leaders on the night. It has gotten to the point with Mya where anything less than utter perfection seems like a letdown, and that was the reaction following her superb tango with Dmitry Chaplin. It was fine, with intricate footwork in a tight area, but the most memorable part of their segment came in rehearsal when Mya's stray foot endangered Chaplin's future ability to father children. Left with little tangible to criticize, the judges came back to the intangible element that may be the one thing standing between Mya and the title: the question of whether she and Chaplin have enough chemistry. Footage of the pair working for Habitat For Humanity may have been intended to make them come across as cuddlier.
Mya's score of 27 was closely trailed by Mark Dacascos at 26. The only dancer all night who really scored with the paso doble, Dacascos showed some signs last week of finally becoming comfortable with the grind of the show and with partner Lacey Schwimmer, and he now appears to be on the verge of fulfilling his preseason potential. Schwimmer urged her partner to channel some of his action film charisma into the aggressive dance, and the resulting athleticism made this a very enjoyable two minutes. Dacascos still needs to work on the non-dancing portion of DWtS -- he does little pandering to the crowd and may be too introverted to truly catch on with the public. But he's pulled himself out of mediocrity.
A man who needed a gimmick coming into this week was Irvin, and partner Anna Demidova may have given him one. Telling him that he should try to improve his posture in the paso doble by pretending to hold a coin between what Demidova called his "butt chicks," Irvin literally did just that in his rehearsal. Credit goes to the lucky coin, as the much-improved Irvin came through with a respectable effort, the first time all season he has seemed to do more dancing than walking (although he still had the night's lowest score). Irvin attempted to give Tonioli the coin as a present, which the judge for some reason declined.
Both Hart and Natalie Coughlin fell back to earth this week, and the landing was particularly hard in the case of Coughlin, who was the lowest-scoring woman (22) -- that and the fact that she went first might just put her in peril. Like Dacascos, she has faced the rap of being technically sound while seeming emotionally disengaged, but Coughlin and Alec Mazo did not overcome that issue this week, a critical problem in the paso doble. Strangely for an athlete, the question of how much she really wants this has to be asked. Hart's partner Mark Ballas missed a day of rehearsal with a bad cold, which left her to be tutored by Anna Trebunskaya briefly. The resulting Argentine tango with the healthy Ballas picked up speed and difficulty towards the end, but the judges had questions about Hart's sexiness, which is never what one wants to hear. Still, her 24 ought to keep her safe.
Aaron Carter needed to come back strong, for the sake of both his future on the show and his own peace of mind. Has any dancer ever been this upset by low scores before? After a slow start, he and Karina Smirnoff hit their tango stride, and the pair ended up with a 24, their best scores in three weeks. Louis Vito also tangoed and landed his highest score of the season with a 22, though like Irvin, he's having to improve a lot just to keep from falling out of sight. His footwork was much improved, and his diminutive size makes his stunts with Chelsie Hightower seem more impressive than they truly may be.
Kelly Osbourne continues to get rapturous audience response for what are merely decent routines. Tonight's gimmick was performing the paso doble to the tune of her father's hit "Crazy Train" (who can ever forget its Latin groove?). Choreographing this could not have been a barrel of laughs for Louis van Amstel, but the two of them made it weirdly memorable if not technically perfect, and Osbourne's 24 will keep her very safe. Krupa closed the evening's pair dances with a tango with her new partner, which generally went well despite a noticeable stumble. It was hard to assign blame for that mistake, and the judges (rightly) made an allowance for Krupa having a different partner by giving her a 24. It's hard not to notice, though, that the audience simply doesn't respond to her consistently solid work with very big cheers.
The hustle went unjudged and served little purpose other than to fill out the two hours and provide a small release of tension. The period clothes and hair (Vito had sideburns that were more Allman Brothers than Village People) were reminders of fashion's Decade From Hell. But each pair had a brief showcase at center stage amidst the chaos, and a few dancers managed to stand out, Mya, Dacascos, and Carter chief among them.
Who might go home this week? Coughlin's lackluster showing is the first real test of the power of Olympic gold in this season, and Irvin will always be in danger as long as the judges score him lowest. But the best bet is to go with Carter, who was better but may not have done enough to win back a wavering America. And hopefully, results night won't again find Samantha Harris's hair saluting the year 1987.