In praise of SYTYCD’s surprisingly awesome celebrity guest judges

This season, So You Think You Can Dance brought back judge Mary Murphy to sit on the panel along with executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and one or two guest judges every week. With reality shows sometimes bringing on celebrities to promote themselves or their projects, they are rarely worthy of much more than a fast-forward button, but the opposite has been true on the Fox dance competition series this summer.

The celebrities who’ve been on the panel include Megan Mullally, Debbie Reynolds, Kristin Chenoweth, Carmen Electra, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Neil Patrick Harris, and Lady Gaga. With the notable exception of Carmen Electra, whose awfulness was mitigated because choreographer Travis Wall judged the same week and did exceptionally well (he’d be a fantastic permanent addition to the panel instead of, say, Adam Shankman), they have all been strong judges.

They haven’t just been acceptable, either, reaching the low bar people would understandably set for a guest celebrity judge. But each truly added something to the show. Neil Patrick Harris was better than most judges on other competition shows: at once thoughtful, smart, informed, funny, and critical. Kristin Chenoweth was ridiculously fun but offered interesting critiques.

Last night’s guest judge, Lady Gaga, could have been a disaster, and started slow, but excelled. Her comments obviously impacted the contestants, and not just when she, say, cried or invited Melanie to join her tour. Her analysis was informed by her perspective (embracing your inner weirdo) and also wasn’t afraid to slam the choreographers, which has often been something the judges dance around. Commenting on Jess’ routine, who I still can’t stand, she said Tabitha and Napoleon’s choreography “wasn’t for me,” adding that his “performance outshined” the props and “your hand extensions said the flower.”

Each celebrity has brought their personality to the table, but also detailed praise and criticism that has occasionally outshined Nigel and Mary’s comments, perhaps because the celebrities are critiquing with fresh eyes. As always, the dancing on So You Think You Can Dance is strong, but it’s the judges’ table that’s really making this season.

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