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“Dancing With the Stars” belongs to that special class of reality television whose sole mission is to bolster the fame and fortune of existing celebrities rather than fashion them from scratch. “DWTS” can count Bindi Irwin, Rumer Willis, one-time teen idol Donny Osmond, and Drew Lachey, younger brother of Nick Lachey, among its many esteemed winners — as well as a perhaps unfair number of former professional athletes. Since 2005, the show’s charm lies in the eclectic mix of B-list celebrities who willingly waltz their way onto ABC’s lacquered, career-reviving ballroom floor.
I have never actively watched Dancing With the Stars, but I begrudgingly tuned in for the Season 29 premiere after a glance at the show’s lineup revealed a venerable murderer’s row of the past year’s biggest names in television. Chrishell Stause from “Selling Sunset?” Monica Aldama from “Cheer?” Carole Baskin from that low-budget indie documentary about barnyard cats?
Throw in Justina Machado from the wonderful “One Day at a Time,” which Pop TV revived in 2019 (only for its new season to air on CBS, funnily enough), and an interesting picture coalesces. “Dancing With the Stars,” one of ABC’s landmark primetime properties, has put together a deep bench of… Netflix stars. And these women are all the quarterbacks of their respective star-making properties, not the tight ends (shoutout to their “DWTS” co-star Vernon Davis, who is, in fact, a former NFL tight end). Watch Monica Aldama confidently dance the samba to “Party in the U.S.A.,” for example, and one can’t help but recall her commanding performance as herself, the U.S.A.’s foremost college cheerleading coach in “Cheer.” Before her elimination from the show last week, Carole Baskin managed to squeeze in dances to “Eye of the Tiger,” “What’s New Pussycat,” and “Circle of Life,” reifying “Tiger King” in our collective imagination just at the twilight of its COVID-era relevance. And even though the third season of “Selling Sunset” was just released, Chrishell Stause’s endearingly mediocre dance skills make me want to watch her flee Christine Quinn’s goth Barbie wedding all over again. My only salient thought while watching the “DWTS” premiere was that I should turn off ABC and reload Netflix.
It’s somewhat disconcerting to watch streaming stars flock to network television and not the other way around, as if our engorged but well-defined television matrix is finally short-circuiting. Fidgeting in front of the “DWTS” judging panel without the gloss of a Netflix production budget, they look, startlingly, like real people. Any coherent meaning of “event viewing” has eroded in the past decade; momentary mastery of the late-stage entertainment production economy has proved elusive even for the new guard. “DWTS,” in all its sweaty and unironic glory, might have once considered itself event viewing, and now may be a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps what awaits us, in a vaguely apocalyptic world, are these sorts of reverse-engineered attempts at restoring unity to the cultural landscape.
But the scales remain tipped. The Netflix empire, having stripped millions of eyeballs away from network television, is now physically invading its territory. This is part of what makes watching Netflix stars sashay it up on ABC so perplexing, even uncomfortable. It feels like an admittance of defeat. This collaboration may appear to be consensual, but make no mistake: Netflix has won.
Well, almost — looking for all 22 seasons of new host Tyra Banks’ former gig “America’s Next Top Model?” Those, blessedly, are on Hulu.
— Staff writer Amelia F. Roth-Dishy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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