There’s a school of thought that as a reality show becomes more entrenched and judges get used to having their egos stroked, they get more blatant about trying to ram their favorites through to the next round at the expense of others who may have been better.
You can be charitable and say that it’s because the judges are only human and can’t help themselves. They know better than we do what makes a person a potential star, and they are just trying to make sure we see the little things that we would otherwise miss.
Or you can be more cynical (or realistic) and think that it’s because of demographics (“We’re losing all our women! Let’s start praising them to keep them in!”) or because they intend to make sure that their candidate wins regardless of what those dumb audience members think.
Which brings us to the current season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” where the judges have become one of the stories in a season that has been notable for both the amount of changes it instituted this year, and how poorly most of them have worked.
This season has been a nightmare on several levels. The first three dancers eliminated were women, creating a lopsided gender balance with six men among the remaining eight contestants. But that’s OK, because viewers haven’t had to vote off very many dancers. Alex Wong and Ashley Galvan had to withdraw in back-to-back weeks with injuries, and Billy Bell was saved only because the show had an elimination-free episode.
But while the earlier eliminations and injuries have made the show disjointed, the judges have gotten the lion’s share of the criticism. This year, Nigel Lythgoe and company seem to be unusually heavy handed. Or maybe it’s just that we’re noticing it more.
Finally getting heard
Lythgoe made over the judges’ panel this year, which sent Mary Murphy packing. Murphy got a lot of attention for her (over)enthusiasm when she sat on the panel, but that had the additional benefit of distracting everyone from what the rest of the judges said. Who could even remember what the name of the guest judge was when ears were still ringing from one of her trademark yells?
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Instead, we have Mia Michaels and Adam Shankman on the panel, which makes for a crabbier threesome, and a boring one as well. It's a group that often seems to be more about self-promotion (Did you know that Shankman was nominated for an Emmy?! He's not shy about saying so) than judging.
Michaels is a brilliant choreographer and could teach all of the finalists a lot about how to carry off a routine, but she doesn’t get to do that in her new role as permanent critic. Shankman was great when he was the occasional third judge in the past, but seems to have run out of gas now that he’s on the stand every week. Plus we have a newly unleashed Lythgoe, who seems to view himself as the deity of dance whose opinions must not be questioned. If you have any doubt, just check his Twitter back-and-forth after the show.
Pushing their picks
But most fans could accept the shortcomings. Heck, many of them have sat through Randy Jackson for nine seasons now on “American Idol.” What draws the most complaints are the allegations of bias, that the judges (and particularly Lythgoe) have been pushing their picks too aggressively and are heavy with the criticism on some dancers and lighter on others.
At least with Michaels, you can argue that when she cuts into a contestant (which she’s done to most of the finalists at one point or another), it’s because that as an artist, she sees the opportunities that both the dancers and the audience miss. That’s her argument, anyway, and you can take it or leave it. Shankman has been disappointingly unoriginal for weeks.
As for Lythgoe, his counterargument is always that it is the viewers whose votes determine the bottom three, so anyone who doesn’t like it can go pound sand. Which is true, except that A) the judges’ opinions can help determine the vote, and B) the judges do determine who exits each week, including making up the rules as they go. (“Everyone who is injured and can’t dance is out! Wait, except for you, Billy Bell!”)
It’s hard not to compare this show to “American Idol,” since they are both 19 Entertainment productions that air on Fox. “Idol” has always had strong critics of its judging, particularly Simon Cowell, but there are a couple of big differences.
The first is that for every fan of the show who hated Cowell, dozens more watched mostly to hear what he had to say. The other is that he seemed better able to deal with the fact that on occasion, America would ignore him. That was hugely evident this year when Tim Urban kept on being voted through despite his early struggles. Ultimately, Cowell started to just shrug and said, “It doesn’t matter what I think because America loves you so you’ll probably stick around.”
Of course, with Lythgoe apparently set to return as “Idol’s” executive producer again after a two-year break, fans of that competition can only hope he leaves the reforms that haven’t worked this season on “SYTYCD” behind.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @craigberman.