RECAP: A Winning Beginning

The folks at Dancing with the Stars seem aware that the preseason consensus was that the Season 14 cast is maybe a mite colorless. As if desperate to prove us wrong, all concerned spent Monday’s premiere trying to convince viewers that what they were watching was historic in its brilliance. Even the studio audience seemed more highly caffeinated than usual.

The three judges got in the act by engaging in the most overt grade inflation I can recall seeing on an early season DWTS. A few of the 12 stars have almost no place to go but down, after just one week. Two dancers received scores of 26, the highest scores anyone has gotten in the first week in the last eight seasons; and this was the first premiere episode in DWTS history where everyone had a score of at least 20.

Was all this excitement justified? I thought every judge could have scored every dancer one point lower, and it would have been more in line with what should have been expected. The high scores look like an effort to create hype for a season that could really use it. But there’s no doubt that what S14 lacks in notoriety, it makes up for in ability. There really is a good deal of raw talent here, and what’s more (this may be a DWTS first), no one who looks absolutely hopeless. The field is deep as well – most of them stand a chance of making it to the finals, if they can manage to get voter support.

There is no elimination after this first week; the dancers will go again prior to the first results show a week from Tuesday. Running down the list from least promising to most intriguing:

Help wanted: Three dancers scored a 20 – typically very good for beginners, but the lowest scores this time around. Quasi-rock star Gavin DeGraw has three strikes against him already, which means out everywhere but DWTS. First, he apparently is going to wear that dumb hat in every situation. Second, he has little natural rhythm. Third (and this is crucial), it’s not clear that he’s taking the process all that seriously, which is a no-no for a lot of fans. You could make a case that his foxtrot with Karina Smirnoff was a solid effort for a first week, and that he has the right to ease into the competition in his own way, but he might strike viewers as not being invested enough.

Martina Navratilova is in a similar boat. She’s too competitive to not give her best effort, but she’s already won oodles in her chosen field, and was never wildly popular even with the tennis public. So we can expect her to be a genial presence for the short while she’s with DWTS. Joking that this was the first time she had worn a dress in 20 years, she moved well but tentatively in her foxtrot with Tony Dovolani, watching him for all her cues. In a tough field, I suspect she won’t be given the time to improve.

Melissa Gilbert is one of our nostalgia contestants this season, but I question how much of a fan favorite she can become. To be blunt about it, she’s a little strange-looking these days, like she’s on the road to Grey Gardens. Her cha cha with everyone’s favorite patient instructor, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, had some things to recommend it, chiefly her flexibility. But there was a small bobble early, and lacked sufficient movement in the hips. We did get to hear Maks tell the former Half-Pint “You have an ass – congratulations!” Thank goodness Michael Landon wasn’t around to hear that.

Ladies with promise: A little of Sherri Shepherd may go a long way. She’s a bit too eager to play the relatable, zany “friend,” joking about how she left a boob on the dance floor and gawking over partner Val Chmerkovskiy. But her opening foxtrot, while not very difficult, displayed a lot of charisma, and it’s obvious she wants to do well. She may have problems with the more athletic dances, but this was a solid start (a 23 score) for the View co-host, who apologized for all previous criticisms of DWTS performers.

We saw enough of Gladys Knight Monday to officially name her the top over-65 dancer in DWTS history. She’s the first senior citizen they have had who looks like she might be able to stick around for a while on the merits, and not just on sympathy votes. She really did move in her cha cha with Tristan MacManus, even though there was one apparent stumble that the judges didn’t mention. And let’s face it – there’s only so much sexiness you’re going to get out of her on the floor. But it looks like she’s going to last longer than I assumed she would.

Maria Menounos and Derek Hough went first, so you knew their scores weren’t going to be great, but Derek probably never suspected their 21 would put them barely out of last place. Maria will last for a while because of who she is partnered with, but this duo is going to have to work at it – and Derek proved with Ricki Lake that it is indeed still possible for him to lose.  She is in terrific shape, but this cha cha was too restrained and displayed too much fear of cutting loose. Her laugh may send viewers to their mute button, something I usually just save for a particularly awful song rendition from the DWTS warblers.

Male hearrthrobs: The reaction to Mexican soap star William Levy was unlike anything we’ve ever seen on DWTS. The audience screamed when Tom Bergeron mentioned his name, as if a two-headed Justin Bieber/Zac Efron hybrid was performing. If he blows up in the voting as he did on Twitter and Facebook Monday night, this race might be over already. The judges chose to just get out of the way of the steamroller, giving William and Cheryl Burke a 24 for their cha cha. But one wonders if the judges hadn’t just assumed the Latin guy would kill on the Latin dance, because judging him strictly on the moves, there wasn’t greatness here, just potential. But he also had less rehearsal time than the others, so he might justify the drooling eventually.

I also thought the trio of judges was surprisingly kind to Jack Wagner, who is going to have a hard time standing out amidst all these younger and more athletic men. But he and Anna Trebunskaya seem to get along well (who doesn’t love Anna?), and their opening foxtrot had plenty of corny charm. Their 23 was overly generous, but Jack has the right attitude for the show. And it helps that he’s putting across the image of being unsure of himself – it will make his inevitable improvement seem like a major triumph.

The audience loved Green Bay Packer Donald Driver, and he helped himself by insisting he has been a DWTS geek for a long time. The NFL thing will make him bulletproof for weeks, which might be why the judges felt they could be a little tougher with Donald and Peta Murgatroyd, giving them a 21. He and Peta went a little nuts on their cha cha, but it all got frantic, and there is concern that he might not be able to rein it in on the more intricate dances. Football players are used to accepting coaching though, so if Peta can bring the choreography and teaching skill (still a question mark with her), he should be fine.

Our leaderboard: Disney Channel star Roshon Fegan and Chelsie Hightower got only a 23, but don’t be mistaken – he has an insane amount of natural talent. If his pro can take that talent and channel it in a ballroom direction, he can easily win the entire season. But while he was able to bring his hip-hop skill to the cha cha (there was even a snippet of moonwalk), Len Goodman was not a fan of the freestyling. Whether Roshon can look technically skilled when he’s holding his partner is an open question, but Chelsie has a major opportunity with him.

Katherine Jenkins. Who knew she could dance? And more generally, who knew who she was? The Welsh classical vocalist had the right posture and attitude for the foxtrot, and she and Mark Ballas seemed assured, as if they had been rehearsing this for a year. The judges’ scores of 26 weren’t really unjustified considering how generous they were all night … and yet, I was left strangely unimpressed. Katherine’s problem is that she simply isn’t very charismatic, and I suspect she’s going to need through-the-roof scores every week to hang around.

But the co-high scorer of the night is our tentative favorite, and of course I’m talking about Urkel. Yes, Jaleel White grew up and got suave. It’s hard to believe this was a first-week foxtrot from him, or that he hasn’t done this before, because it would not have looked a bit out of place on a season finale. His footwork is truly special, and the 26 he and Kym Johnson received was well-deserved. Kym just may come from behind and become the first female three-time winner. The only risk he has in the short run is living up to this beginning.