It took nearly two hours for Carole Baskin to get thrown to the tigers. It was an excruciating wait.
Like a big cat stalking its prey, the Dancing With the Stars producers waited a full 117 minutes before going in for the kill, stringing along the scores of new lookie-loo viewers who, judging by the sudden social media interest in the creaky 29th season premiere of the show, were tuning in for a reality-TV snuff film: the televised humiliation of the year’s most notorious TV star.
They got just that, too. Baskin’s paso doble, danced with laughable predictability to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” earned the lowest score of the night. With just 11 points out of 30, she even ranked lower than former NBA star Charles Oakley, whose choreography at one point was just him clapping in time to the beat.
The show’s producers, which includes this season’s new host Tyra Banks, wisely suspected that the zeitgeist-seizing personality from Netflix’s maddeningly popular Tiger King docuseries was going to be the night’s big draw, teasing her appearance in the show’s COVID-compliant socially-distanced ballroom roughly three times a segment.
Say what you will about the long-running reality competition and the audience it panders to, these people are savants of shamelessness. From Sean Spicer to Bristol Palin to Rick Perry, they know what casting decisions are going to score headlines, drum up interest and relevance, and ruffle feathers—and not of the samba gown variety.
Consider it a devil’s embrace of this dystopian hellscape. Pandemic. Police killings. Protests. Wildfires. Voter suppression. What jester would more please the court of dipshits (that would be us) than the Tiger King lady? She, the woman who became famous because people thought a show that glamorized animal abuse, exploited addicts, and propagated poverty tourism was hilarious camp, her own cultural presence amplified because jokes theorizing that she murdered her husband and fed him to tigers became a popular meme.
(The family of that husband, by the way, purchased ad time in Florida markets and aired a commercial during Monday’s telecast asking for information on his disappearance, should this saga already not be grotesque and twisted.)
Mostly we feel foolish that we didn’t have on our 2020 Bingo Card of Nightmares, “Please welcome to the Dancing With the Stars ballroom, That Bitch Carole Baskin!” (To quote the vile nickname given to her by her nemesis Joe Exotic on the show, which we’ve all broadly adopted, misogyny be damned.)
What else is there to say about her dance? She wore a saggy pink leotard covered with a mismatched leopard-print apron and, of course, a flower crown.
I shouldn’t need to tell you that it started with her partner Pasha Pashkov in a tiger cage, because of course it did. They then kind of had a collective seizure back and forth across the stage, stopping every once in a while to make dramatic claw hands at the camera. The climax of the song saw them doing a classic professional paso doble move: walking around in a circle together a few times.
She seemed to have a great time. Good for her.
The show’s judges tried to contextualize her as an adorable “crazy cat lady,” as if anyone tuning in to watch had anything remotely wholesome in mind, and not total, vicious bloodsport. But that is obviously the point.
The casting freaking worked. It always does. I’m watching and writing about this show, thus feeding the beast, or in this case, beasts: satiating the show’s craven dance for relevance, and validating Baskin’s desire to stretch out her 15 minutes as long as possible.
What’s always been remarkable to me, as someone who used to watch the show sans irony and has continued to casually drop in as it’s trudged on, is how completely at odds these cynical plays for attention are with the rest of the show’s content—not to mention what a large swath of its oft-ignored red state, conservative audience tunes in for.
The show has always been, these castings aside, earnest to a fault. That earnestness, of course, is in service of the kind of glorious, captivating schmaltz that warrants hours of investment each week for more than a decade: things like Dirty Dancing actress Jennifer Grey’s Hollywood redemption arc, Valerie Harper’s brave cancer battle, the thrill of an athlete like Emmitt Smith tackling gender norms and learning ballroom dance on national television, or the simple joy of that adorable Adam Rippon still being on our screens even after the Olympics are over.
In that regard, we’re all complete trash for watching Monday night just to sneer at Baskin. Maybe we did not deserve to see Johnny Weir ferociously nail an androgynous partner-dance to “Buttons” by the Pussycat Dolls…but we got to see it anyway. The years of joy added to our lives from witnessing Justina Machado’s exuberant “Respect” routine? We should all be forced to return them.
Yet DWTS is directly inviting such nefarious viewership, which may be why, even as it continues its reality-TV reign, so many critics have soured on the show.
“It used to be about watching famous (or one-time famous, or famous-adjacent) people muster the nerve to try out the tango, do their damnedest, maybe make fools of themselves, as we all laughed good-naturedly along the way. ”
It used to be about watching famous (or one-time famous, or famous-adjacent) people muster the nerve to try out the tango, do their damnedest, maybe make fools of themselves, as we all laughed good-naturedly along the way.
When you look at the cast list over the years, you can see how stars and their teams noticed the weekly program as a sly platform for thrusting them back into the spotlight, and suddenly ringers like pop stars and figure skaters, not to mention legitimately famous people, were jostling for the show’s disco ball-lit platform.
Especially with this cast, you see the embrace of the unprecedented relevance celebrities from the world of reality TV see in the show, not to mention the usefulness of its airtime: Cheer’s Monica Aldama, Catfish’s Nev Schulman, The Bachelorette’s Kaitlyn Bristowe, and Selling Sunset’s Chrishell Stause.
I’m curious what kind of backlash, if any, there will this year to the show’s various evolutions—if not solely the blatant baiting of the whole Carole Baskin “thing.” Longtime hosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews were fired while Banks was brought on and a makeover of the show was teased.
I’m not quite sure what sort of revamp we’re supposed to be wowed by. Everything seemed pretty much the same to me, just with Tyra Banks. While we all are in her debt in these wild, mask-wearing times for the invaluable lesson of how to smize, Bergeron’s corny banter is the very fabric of the show. As judges Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba vamped and hammed it up, his presence was sorely missing.
These missteps are a shame, because, to put my own Pollyanna bonnet back on, there is still so much fun to be had in this show.
Anne Heche serving up what can only be described as Anne Heche vibes while dancing in front of a CGI solar system was the perfect amount of cheekiness. Coach Monica looked like she was on the verge of a nervous stroke any time they panned to her, but she pulled together a gorgeous little routine. Weir and Machado, as mentioned, were instantly iconic.
The unscripted nature of it all is still magical television. Who can say why, when asked to send a message to his wife, Schulman stared into the camera and proclaimed, loosely translated, “Don’t worry, honey, I am not cheating on you with this woman!”
And you can’t help but get invested in the scoring and the ranking. Could Stause’s horrific scores spell doom for her future on the show? Please, this is Dancing With the Stars. In uncertain times, the only guarantee is that Stause is going nowhere until she is forced to sob through a lyrical waltz dramatizing her painful, public divorce from that hot guy on This Is Us who now seems kinda garbage.
The biggest misfire of all of this, though, is diminishing returns. When is stunt TV actually worth it?
Yes, Dancing With the Stars was trending Monday night, riding high on the pedals of Carole Baskin’s tacky flower crown. But the rubbernecking is over. We saw the car crash. It was ugly. But now it’s time to get traffic moving again and on with our lives—lives that, God willing, will never require hearing the phrase “hey all you cool cats and kittens” ever again.