When they fired Tom Bergeron, ABC and BBC Studios promised a “creative refresh” for Dancing with the Stars season 29. They delivered neither creativity nor a refresh for the ballroom dancing competition.
Instead, they gave us the same-old DWTS, just without its beloved host and with an audience-free set and a terrible audio mix that muddled new host Tyra Banks and the judges by piping in fake crowd noises, including fake cheers and even fake boos for an occasional negative comment.
Sure, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba both have lighter hair. But not even the set was new: it’s the same set that was introduced last season, with bright lights and lasers, and now with a wider, physically distant judges’ table and angled video panels that cleverly cover the space where the live audience would be.
Look, if you like to see celebrities be dragged around a ballroom floor by professional dancers, and then see how they improve over the season, Dancing with the Stars is still your show.
If you want a show that essentially ignores the outside world, this is also your show; there were no masks to be seen, nor mentions of bubbles or testing or how exactly any of this was safe, maybe because they didn’t want to alienate Sean Spicer fans. There were certainly no mentions of the fires ravaging the west coast just outside the show’s door, nor a record five tropical storms in the Atlantic, with one bearing down on the Gulf Coast.
As far as celebrity reality show casts go, this one has a great range of headline-generating people, and most of them are pretty fun to watch. “Johnny Weir and Dancing with the Stars is heaven,” Carrie Ann Inaba said, and it’s hard to disagree—even though he didn’t do great with his first dance. As usual, basically no one started strong; the highest score was a 21.
But it’s the same Dancing with the Stars—even the scoring paddles are the same as last year—and I feel deceived. Had ABC said nothing, I wouldn’t have noticed the lack of a difference. But now I’m just annoyed.
Perhaps I should have seen this bait-and-switch coming. After the Tom/Tyra announcements, ABC never revealed any actual changes, except for Derek Hough replacing Len Goodman. And watch ABC’s message change over time in four press releases:
- July 14: “the creative refresh the team is planning while honoring the show America loves”
- Aug. 18: “a fresh take on the competition”
- Sept. 2: “some cha-cha-changes”
- Sept. 8: (zero mention of changes at all in the announcement that Derek Hough would judge instead of Len Goodman, who’s stuck in the UK)
So in less than two months, we went from a “creative refresh” to “some … changes” to never mind, nothing to see here!
Keeping the same clunky covers of pop songs and replacing a judge is not a “creative refresh.” Nor is replacing a host. And after this season premiere, that particular decision is even more baffling—because it was the least-necessary change the show needed to make.
When Tom Bergeron was fired, it was a surprise, though if that was the first of many changes—say, an entirely new structure to the competition, an entirely new judging panel, and a new format for episodes—it might have made sense.
Considering how little the rest of the show changed, it now just seems like ABC wanted to dump Tom Bergeron. He was the center and heart of the show, able to straddle the cheesiness and the spectacle perfectly. Why exactly did they fire him? Was someone still pissed about Bergeron’s lighter-than-light criticism of Sean Spicer’s casting? Why replace him with Tyra Banks?
It’s not fair to compare Tyra Banks’ hosting to Tom Bergeron’s, especially not on night one. He had 28 seasons to get used to the rhythms of this show; she’s done it once now. She also had to do two jobs, as ABC also fired Erin Andrews, and Erin’s post-dance interviews with the contestants was completely removed. Actually, the lack of those stage-side interviews is the biggest and most welcome change.
That meant Tyra had to basically do both jobs, keeping the show moving—i.e. filling time after a dance—and bantering with the contestants. Tyra did host a live competition show, America’s Got Talent, for two seasons, and did fine, but I’m not sure “brief contestant banter” is one of her strengths.
“Alright, alright, we’ve got 13 out of 30 for Chrishell and Gleb,” she said early in the episode. “Yeah, first score of the season. It’s okay, it’s okay, you know, everybody, see, you know, you guys, actually, later, can help them out, okay, you guys can actually help them and you can vote for them later. But do you know what? Enjoy.”
Thankfully, as the two-hour premiere went on, Tyra became more comfortable and babbled far less. But it was still a noticeable weak spot where there didn’t used to be one.
Tyra certainly wasn’t the only awkward one on the stage. After Catfish host Nev Schulman danced, she said, “So, Nev, you are a family man. Wife, kids, are watching right now. I want you to look into that camera, I want you to tell me—tell them, what you’re feeling right now. What’s papa doing for them?”
That’s kind of a weirdly phrased question, but Nev’s answer was even weirder.
Nev looked into the camera and promised he wasn’t cheating on his wife with his ballroom dancing partner, Jenna Johnson. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Jenna’s great—but I am more in love with you than ever, Laura. I’m just here to have fun and do my kids proud.”
I was reminded immediately of that “no one” meme:
Nev: I AM NOT CHEATING ON MY WIFE WITH THIS WOMAN RIGHT HERE, AND I WILL SIGN AN AFFIDAVIT AND SWEAR A BLOOD OATH JUST HAND ME A DAGGER
Nev also not-so-subtly slid Jenna’s hand off his chest after judging, even though the way they were standing was perfectly normal for ballroom dancing partners. So yeah, everything is fine, nothing to see here.
Former judge Len Goodman appeared in a recorded message that pretended he was talking live to Tyra Banks, even though it was like 2:15 a.m. in the London at the time. “You’ll see me again throughout the season,” Len promised, but didn’t explain anything about why he’d be appearing or what he’d be doing.
The new person at the judges’ table, Derek Hough, was pretty great, and is easily the best new part of Dancing with the Stars. His energy is a step down from his World of Dance judging, but while he’s passionate, it’s much less performative than Bruno’s very, very tired schtick. He also offers much more specific critique and advice for adjusting in future dances, or at least it’s easier to find that critique in his comments.
But it certainly wasn’t easy to find “a fresh take on the competition” during Dancing with the Stars season 29’s premiere. Maybe they’ll introduce something new later, like last year’s introduction of live voting, which didn’t do anything to change it from a popularity contest to an actual talent competition. But for now, there’s nothing new to see here.