September 13, 2006

Lopez, Lawrence wow on Dancing With the Stars

The moves! The grooves! The nuttiness! Yes, Dancing With the Stars is back for a third season of low-level celebs so starving for a comeback that they'll transform themselves into show-off shakers, fox-trotters and mambo kings if it kills them.

Tuesday's two-hour premiere made several things clear, including the fact that, as a dancer, Tucker Carlson makes a good political journalist. The man was even worse than last season's no-try, no-cry Master P. Carlson somehow did even less, spending much of his first dance sitting in a chair. He should have stayed there. Dressed drably, he was a flat-footed "awful mess," as judge Bruno declared, and his score of 12 was the night's low.

Also clear is that the judges seem about as reliable as Soviet judges were at the Olympics during the Cold War. Yes, the fix is in, or seems to be. Why? Because the night's leadoff dancer, actor Joey Lawrence, was easily the best of the bunch, or at no worse second to eventual top scorer actor Mario Lopez. Yet the judges sent Joey to the middle of the pack. It reeked of their muted praise last season for Lisa Rinna, who couldn't buy a break despite dancing circles around those coddled by the judges. At any rate, Lawrence and Lopez both showed more snap, precision and athleticism than anyone else by far.

The male celebs danced cha-cha-chas with their pro partners, while the women were stuck gliding and looking pretty with fox trots, so there was some built-in disadvantage there, except for ballroom traditionalists.

Tom DeLay's support didn't help country singer Sara Evans, whose slow, dull dance "looked very conservative," judge Carrie Ann said (well, yeah -- perhaps in several ways). Her yawner drew a next-to-last score of 15.

A pleasant surprise was former Dallas Cowboys great Emmitt Smith, who danced in superb harmony with partner Cheryl (of last season's winning team) and seemed a natural. He was far, far better than last season's awkward Jerry Rice, another NFL ex whom the judges nudged along far past his legitimate shelf life on the show. Smith finished second with a score of 24. Look for him to stick around -- legitimately.

Also impressive was singer Willa Ford, who brought good moves and a bright, fun-loving, self-effacing personality to the show and tied for third with the overrated Vivica Fox (coddled for being the oldest female contestant), at 22 points.

But after Lawrence, it was Lopez who stole the show, performing with stacatto precision and a vitality to match his hyper personality."Do you have extra batteries in your pants?" Bruno asked, while Carrie Ann called Lopez and pro partner Marina "the couple to beat."

Disappointing, after his wife's fine showing last year, was Rinna's husband, Harry Hamlin. Lead-footed and mechanical, he won't last long unless he steps up.

Surprisingly not-awful was extreme talk-show host Jerry Springer, whose partner designed a superb, fun-loving routine that he could handle. He also seemed in tune with the cheesy spirit of the show, much like its great host, Tom Bergeron. "Obviously, you've been to the George Hamilton school of dancing," Bruno said, alluding to last season's oldest gent, who slid by on humility and charm. But Jerry -- that sash, belt, cumberbund or whatever around your tux looked uncomfortably like a truss. That goes under your clothes.

Tonight, viewer votes will combine with judges' scores to send the first of the 11 couples packing. Surely, Carlson is done, while Lopez, Lawrence, Smith and Ford are in for the long haul. But on this show you never know, which is part of the fun of it.

Dancing With the Stars airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays on ABC.

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