Should you need proof that the ongoing pandemic has affected both things that matter and things that don’t matter, here’s a glittering-disco-ball example of the latter: ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” returned to television Monday night, with a new and socially-distant format. The orchestra is gone, the group numbers are out, the judges now sit comically far apart (Bruno Tonioli has to yell even more than he did before) and there’s no audience. Accordingly, the ballroom set has been redesigned — it now sort of gives the feeling of being inside a very fancy Las Vegas slot machine — and the hair-extension budget seems to have been amped up. (Well, there is more space now.)
Though I’ve drifted away from this show in recent years (this is, for the record, Season 29, and I am but human), it’s long been a not-so-guilty pleasure. Beneath the glitter and sequins and questionable celebrity choices lurks something very endearing and relatable: a demonstration of how dance can bring joy. And though joy is in short supply these days, Monday night’s premiere brought plenty: Justina Machado’s snappy, beaming cha-cha; Nev Schulman’s occasionally awkward but sweetly Astaire-ish fox trot; 18-year-old Disney star Skai Jackson’s radiant smile at the end of a smooth tango.
Was it weird? Oh yes, and I’m not just talking about normal “DWTS” weird. (Carole Baskin, of the extremely strange Netflix series “Tiger King,” is on this show. Let it simply be said that, whatever she may be, she is not a dancer.) This has always been a loud show, but you could see the source of the loudness: a packed audience, a large orchestra, Bruno. It’s still loud, but the applause and the music is recorded, and it feels just a bit eerie in that big, flashy open space. New host Tyra Banks, replacing the irreplaceable Tom Bergeron, tried hard to fill the emptiness — making her entrance in an enormous ball gown that looked like a red version of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man — but all that fake applause felt hollow. And it seemed like they didn’t need it; sometimes the dancing was good enough (Machado, Jackson, Johnny Weir) to create a spell of its own.
Perhaps there’s something comforting about “Dancing with the Stars,” even in this very different iteration, being here at all. Sitting at home, being judgy about the outfits (particularly an extremely unfortunate houndstooth ensemble imposed on Jesse Metcalfe by a costumer who I’m assuming didn’t like him) and saying “ooh!” when someone unexpectedly executed a step with verve, felt like old, pre-socially-distant times. You could easily imagine being back in a not-so-distant past; in fact, the “DWTS” celebrity choices help you do so. (Shouldn’t Weir have been on this show ages ago? Are we in some sort of pandemic-induced time warp?)
I’m not sure I’ll stick it out for the season; there’s only so many stiff-shouldered quicksteps I can sit through, and the absence of Bergeron makes things less fun. But it was unexpectedly heartening to find “DWTS” again, not entirely alive and well but at least alive and kicking. (And flicking.) And there was something poignant about watching the contestants watching each other from the upper balcony. Formerly a lounge where they gathered between dances, it’s now a place where they stand far apart, gazing down in eerie contemplation and raising existential questions. I was left wondering: If you are alone with sequins, are you truly alone?