On Monday night, "Dancing With the Stars" returned to a two-hour show, allowing time for the remaining couples to perform two dances each: one ballroom dance, and one Latin dance set in a particular era. And what did we learn from seeing everyone do two dances instead of one? Mostly that the same differences that exist among the couples looked twice as large.
Niecy Nash had the toughest night of anyone. Her Viennese waltz was pretty, but the judges weren't wild about her arm movements. Carrie Ann Inaba insisted that there was something wrong with the actress' "transitions."
It's interesting to note that the difference between good judges and bad judges is often the ability to put criticism in terms that both the contestant and the audience can understand. Carrie Ann's repetition of the word "transitions" — which is a perfectly good dance word, but undoubtedly means almost nothing to many of the show's viewers — would have benefited from a little more explanation.
Niecy's second performance was a paso doble inspired by the 1970s. The criticism here was even less specific than the criticism of her waltz, with Len Goodman assuring her that the dance simply didn't suit her, whatever that means. Niecy managed to outlast Pamela Anderson last week, but she's unlikely to survive a brush with Chad Ochocinco when it comes to popularity.
Chad is only two points ahead of Niecy, having flopped with a tango and then rallied a little with a '60s-inspired jive. The judges' comments were again difficult to parse, as they reacted to his jive by calling the kicks — a very fundamental element — "terrible," but then scoring the dance fairly high anyway. Indeed, Chad's performance in the jive showed almost none of the light-footed energy that the dance typically requires, but the judges seemed to be eager to give him points for attitude, and they went very easy on him.
Two couples wound up in a tie. Erin Andrews and Maksim Chmerkovskiy really impressed the judges with their Argentine tango, and then not so much with a rumba that seemed inspired by the aerobics craze of the '80s (complete with leg warmers). Evan Lysacek and Anna Trebunskaya were more even, with a waltz and a cha-cha from the future that got good — but not great — marks. Both of these couples ended the night with a total of 53 points each.
Way out in the lead, fully six points ahead of Erin and Evan (not to mention 16 points ahead of Niecy) were Nicole Scherzinger and Derek Hough, whose technical superiority only becomes more conspicuous as the competition continues and the judges feel less obligated to pretend that a trained dancer like Nicole is playing on the same field as people like Chad and Erin.
Two dances — a foxtrot and a paso doble from the '50s — earned them a total of 59 points, one point short of perfect scores for both. Ironically, as there's less and less of a pretense that she can be held back from getting pretty much nothing but 10s, the Nicole story continues to grow duller. Sure, she's a great dancer, but it becomes more evident by the week that the only question in the finals will be whether Nicole's scoring advantage with the judges can be overcome by the advantage anyone else is likely to have over her in the viewer voting.
It's still true that Evan probably has the best chance to beat Nicole, but the judges aren't doing him any favors with vague, unhelpful critiques like Carrie Ann's insistence that he had to "lose himself" — a criticism she backed up with nothing he could actually incorporate into his training.
Nicole's built-in advantages — those things that make her, to fans of the show, a "ringer" — continue to be obvious enough that she may have a hard time actually winning viewers over. But these final weeks in which she's romping all over the competition from a technical standpoint are getting pretty dull.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington.