By Richard Miller
What do a Motown legend, a Super Bowl MVP, a former White House press secretary, a country music singer and the most recent star of “The Bachelorette” all have in common? They are all trying to tango their way into America’s heart as the new contestants of this season of “Dancing with the Stars.”
After a year-long hiatus, the “Dancing with the Stars” ballroom was back in action on ABC on Sept. 16. The hiatus came after the conclusion of season 27, which caused an intense outcry from fans to change the system for voting and scoring due to radio host Bobby Bones winning, despite being deemed by the fan as one of the lesser-known ‘stars’ and consistently getting the lowest judges scores.
In response to the fans’ demands for change, the show underwent massive restructuring, which all started with the big announcement of a new executive producer, Andrew Llinares, and a complete overhaul of the previous set design, swapping the old black and silver look for a fresh, sleek, Great Gatsby-inspired style.
The new gold set has a completely different color scheme and brings back the iconic staircase the celebrities are known for walking down at the beginning of the show. The judges also emphasized they are being tougher and changing the elimination process in a way that has yet to be revealed.
Upon the revelation of the cast, there was outrage on social media for casting former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, as fans deemed it inappropriate for him to participate due to his controversial past as a member of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Drama ensued with iconic supermodel Christie Brinkley, who initially wasn’t able to compete due to an injury sustained in practice, which led to her daughter, Sailor Brinkley-Cook, taking her place.
The two-hour spectacle wasn’t without its share of twist and turns either. For the first time in the show’s history, the celebrity and professional dance partner pairings were not revealed until the first show.
The show kicked off with “Bachelorette” star Hannah Brown performing a cheeky cha-cha-cha to Witney Houston’s hit, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which head judge Len Goodman described as “crisp, clean and confident.” She performed with precision and accuracy while still having fun, which helped her obtain the second-highest score of the night.
Brown was followed by Kate Flannery, an actress from the hit show “The Office.” Flannery performed a simple cha-cha-cha to the Donna Summer classic “She Work Hard for the Money.” She let her signature humor shine through with a dance that told a comical story. The judges appreciated his energy and spunk she embedded within the dance, but were quick to identify some of the technical issues with the performance.
Brinkley-Cook performed an upbeat foxtrot to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Hers and “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown’s salsa to Lizzo’s “Juice” were two routines the judges pointed out as having major potential to go far on the show.
Two of the biggest surprises of the nights in terms of danceability were former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Supremes co-founder Mary Wilson. Lewis is known for his tough football persona, while Wilson’s age of 75 makes her the oldest contestant of the season. This did not initially make them on the books as contenders.
However, both came out of the gate with an infectious energy that left the judges and audience impressed. It appeared they both enjoyed themselves while moving effortlessly. Both stars danced to songs synonymous with their careers — Lewis to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” by Nelly and Wilson to the Supremes’ “Baby Love.”
The two final performances of the night were perhaps the two most talked about, but also the two furthest in contrast from each other.
The penultimate dance was Spicer’s salsa to the Spice Girls tune “Spice Up Your Life.” He performed in a bright neon green blouse, with gigantic ruffles down the sleeves. His dance was stiff, felt forced and lacked any rhythm. To the surprise of few, he received some of the lowest scores of the night, and his shirt went viral on Twitter.
The final performance was a tango done by “Dawson’s Creek” actor James Van Der Beek. He received the highest score of the night for a dance that was committed to character, had impressive choreography and had a level of execution that far outweighed the rest.
As someone who has been a life-long fan of the show, I was part of those who were critical of last season. After watching this premiere episode, it’s clear the show listened to its fans. It’s making subtle nods to its history while staying fresh with that kitschy charm we’ve grown to love.