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DWTS has a brand-new set and live voting. It still feels old and creaky.

DWTS has a brand-new set and live voting. It still feels old and creaky.
Dancing with the Stars season 28's new set, which hosted a very familiar version of the ballroom dancing competition. (Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC)

Earlier this summer, at TCA, ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke said that Dancing with the Stars producers had pitched her “really fun format changes” to “freshen up the format” and “surprise and delight the audience in new ways.” She also promised that they’d “really, really focus on talent,” including the “strongest” possible celebrity contestants.

Then they cast Sean Spicer. So what about the format changes? The show is moving to live voting, meaning only people on the east coast and in the Central time zone will be able to vote based on the actual episode’s dances. Details about that will come next week, so during its premiere, all Dancing with the Stars season 28 really did was unveil a new set and shed some of its recent tweaks, but it’s the same show with some shiny foil wrapping paper.

From the judges’ new scoring paddles to the giant, more stylized mirror ball hanging over the ballroom set, nothing has actually changed but the appearance. Don’t get me wrong: I love a new set, and the angles and gold made it feel very Great Gatsby remake.

The location where Erin Andrews asks embarrassingly awkward and useless questions of the contestants right after they’ve danced has moved from the mezzanine to a place slightly lower than the mezzanine, but still up a few steps. Perhaps it’s faster for the contestants to get there! But it’s an irrelevant change insofar as it doesn’t affect the actual experience of watching the show.

At one point, Tom Bergeron said, “By the way, to the those in the audience who are not at the tables alongside the dance floors and you’re feeling jealous?” He held up a wine glass from one of those tables. “Don’t be,” he said, tipping the glass upside down and revealing it was just a prop that couldn’t spill or be consumed. That’s a perfect metaphor for the majority of Dancing with the Stars’ changes: pointless cosmetic changes.

Along with the forthcoming change in the scoring system, the judges are being tougher this season, looking for more technical precision and giving lower scores more readily. The scores ranged from 11 (Lamar) to 21 (James); last fall, the lowest opening score was a 14, and there were two 23s.

I wondered if the tougher scores mean the judges’ scores will be weighted less, so they’re free to be more difficult, or if they’ll be weighted more, so the show is trying to make Dancing with the Stars less of a popularity contest.

It seems like the latter: Carrie Ann Inaba said that this was a direct result of criticism over Bobby Bones’ win last fall. “I do know that we have made some adjustments to the judging, because we got a lot of complaints. We listened to what everybody said about what happened last year,” she told ET. 

Sean Spicer, who moved across the dance floor with the grace of a pear falling out of a shopping cart and rolling across the floor, only had the second-lowest score (Lamar Odom did worse). On Twitter, Sean blamed the judges and Hollywood heathens, because his low score has to do with Christ, apparently. (He later deleted the tweet and posted this instead.)

The show did up its game introducing some of the contestants and their professional partner pairings: I liked Kate Flannery’s intro the best, which mimicked The Office. Bachelorette Hannah Brown had to suffer through more time at the mansion with Chris Harrison, and her partner arrived in a limo on the same dampened driveway.

Sailor Brinkley-Cook subbed in with three days to go for her mother, Christie Brinkley, who broke her arm during a rehearsal.

As to the actual dancing which was the majority of the episode, it was the same as always: a range of gracefulness and skill all set to the awkward attempted singing of popular songs.

James Van Der Beek was the last to dance and surprised everyone. In reality star news, Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown had an “underwhelming” routine, according to Carrie Ann Inaba.

I found myself frequently bored, even in the middle of routines or the judging. James Van Der Beek’s performance was good, but was it worth waiting one hour and 45 minutes for? Especially when it’s on YouTube the next day?

It was all very much the same as it always was, perhaps even more like the show used to be than it has been in the past few years, as it’s played with things like removing the theme song. If you like watching vaguely recognizable people attempting to ballroom dance, the show is here for you.

In the ratings, it did fine: American Ninja Warrior‘s season finale—when someone won the $1 million for only the second time in the show’s history—beat Dancing with the Stars in younger viewers (1.1 versus a 1.0), but not in total viewers (5.39 million versus 8 million). TV By the Numbers reports that this was “even with the 1.0 rating that its season premiere scored a year ago, and up a bit in total viewers from its 2018 premiere’s 7.68 million viewer audience.”

In other words, DWTS managed to draw even more old people than last fall. Of course, people over 49 aren’t actually old: that’s just TV’s absurd metric, but it’s still one that matters.

Next week, though, it faces off against The Voice, which it did not compete against this week. Are these changes enough to keep the show’s fanbase watching? Probably. Are they going to draw new viewers? Probably not.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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