ABC’s Dancing with the Stars was cut from two episodes a week to one for its 17th season, a change that seriously hurt Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. But improbably for a series that has always skewed old, both in its ratings and presentation, the show has improved significantly this season, and no longer seems like a show most suited to be shown on retirement home rec room televisions.
Some of these changes may have been introduced or tried earlier, and I admit that I have not watched every episode of every season, because I get bored easily. Other changes were probably forced or inspired by the shift to one episode a week. But the combination of these seven things is really working:
- Casting. This season’s group has shaped up to be the best cast in the show’s history. Even when big names and big personalities left early, the show remained strong.
- Not as much Brooke Burke. Fewer insipid questions, less awkwardness. Win.
- Not as much bad music. The live band’s mangling of pop songs was legendary and terrible, but the show has been increasingly using recorded music. It may cost more, but it’s definitely worth it, making the show seem significantly less old than it used to. Imagine Corbin and Karina’s awesome freestyle to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” if it was performed by the band instead of the original recording.
- Guest judges. The judges are doing their thing–Bruno still needs a seat belt to keep him from unnecessarily leaping out of his chair for every single critique–but throwing in guest judges keeps things unpredictable, whether it’s Cher (who didn’t quite know what was going on) or Maksim Chmerkovskiy (who seemed like he was on a quest to improve his image).
- Better set design. There’s been a significant upgrade to the look and feel of the dances in the ballroom, such as the reconstruction of a Saved by the Bell set or Bill Engvall’s badly acted recreation of Indiana Jones last night, complete with a cheesy but fun CGI mirror ball trophy boulder. Even the dances that don’t get set pieces get lighting design that changes the ballroom’s appearance significantly. It seems like there’s significantly more time, money, and effort going into presentation.
- Not segregating the contestants. The contestants now stand right next to the judges while being danced. Those who aren’t dancing or prepping for their dance are right next to the judges. There is no balcony or backstage area where the contestants are kept away, and the show benefits from keeping its actual stars front and center.
- An attempt to be better and younger. Reducing the show to one night a week definitely helped by eliminating filler. Beyond that, a lot of choices just feel like there’s conscious effort to make the show better–and appeal to younger viewers. Last night’s cold open, for example, a stylized and well-shot sequence set to Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” wasn’t the best thing ever. But it was better than the cheesier, more ABCish stuff the show has done in past years. The show hasn’t changed its DNA, but it has changed its wardrobe, and it’s really working well.