How to Make So You Think You Can Dance Great Again

The long-running reality show hit gold with a format change two seasons ago, so why not return to it?
  • Gaby Diaz and Lex Ishimoto in Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance (FOX)
    Gaby Diaz and Lex Ishimoto in Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance (FOX)

    This week, So You Think You Can Dance begins its cut down from its top 20 dancers to its top 10, at which point the live shows begin and the at-home audience will vote for their favorites until the ultimate winner emerges. Currently in its 16th season, SYTYCD has spent the last several seasons on the precipice — never quite knowing whether the current season will be its last. As a result, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has run through a variety of format changes and other experiments.  Two summers ago, he struck gold with a revival season that harkened back to the golden age of the show (Seasons 2 through 8, roughly). For one shining moment, renewal wasn't a question, it was a mandate.

    Unfortunately, two years removed, So You Think has regressed to the mean with a season full of incredibly talented dancers that nevertheless lacks any kind of forward momentum. It's still a reliable summer TV series, especially if you're a longtime fan, but it's frustrating that the show has failed to learn the lessons of its spectacular Season 14.

    Season 14 came on the heels of the infamous Juniors season, where dancers ages 8 to 13 competed, with the show appearing to strive for a kind of Dance Moms energy (thankfully without the feuding moms). Tween dance sensation Maddie Zeigler was on hand as a generalized mentor figure to the kids. Fans of the show grumbled about the format change, and the ratings did not improve, but that year did bring with it one key innovation: deploying the show's "All-Stars" (former SYTYCD contestants) in callbacks to choose the finalists, who would then compete on the various All-Stars' teams. It was a twist that borrowed in no small part from NBC's The Voice, but if you weren't necessarily into watching kids dance, it gave you a small point of interest to hang on to. Season 14 reverted back to the usual 18-29 age range, but crucially it retained the twist where the All-Stars picked teams during callbacks, and it made a huge difference.

    To the extent that there's a "problem" with So You Think You Can Dance, it's neverbeen  the quality of the contestants. Year in and year out, this show has presented some of the most blindingly talented young people, whose command of their bodies and their artistry outpaces pretty much every single other talent-based reality competition on TV. The problem is also rarely the judging panel, although since it's the easiest to tweak, it's the element that's changed most often. This season, Lythgoe and Mary Murphy have been joined by choreographer LaurieAnn Gibson and season 3 competitor Dominic "D-Trix" Sandoval, and the results have been decidedly fine.

    The problem lies in trying to craft a competition narrative out of characters who speak with their bodies, not their mouths. SYTYCD used to be very good at this … when they had more time. During the golden age, they had a two-hour performance episode and a one-hour results episode. These three full hours a week gave producers the opportunity to craft stories around the partnered dancers, and create favorites, underdogs, and generally provide viewers a reason to give a damn about who's getting voted out each week. Of course, three hours weekly in the summertime is a big ask, and it's understandable that So You Think couldn't keep that level of engagement up forever. But once it dropped back to one night a week — and this year, just one hour a week — it became exponentially harder to track the personalities of the dancers. This has ceratinly been a problem so far this season, as only babyfaced tap-dancer Eddie has maintained anything close to a storyline.

    Which is why it's crazy that the All-Star mentors twist has remained dormant the last two seasons. Back in Season 14, the All-Stars immediately imbued some personality and narrative onto their dancers, and it made the competition interesting until the new dancers built narratives of their own. By the time the top 10 hit, each finalist and their mentor operated as a team, each one sparking its own unique, TV-ready narrative. Teen phenom Logan benefitted from the veteran calm of Allison. Shy-guy Lex (the eventual winner) was constantly being coaxed out of his shell by human beam of sunshine Gaby Diaz. Tempestuous ballroom talent Kiki was matched so perfectly with his mentor, Jenna Johnson, that their chemistry on the dancefloor raised eyebrows all season. Once again, So You Think You Can Dance was a personality competition as well as a dance battle, and the product sparkled.

    The All-Stars return this week to partner with the semi-finalists before the Top 10 are chosen. And while their absence during the callbacks has been a disappointment, here's hoping the show's producers will course-correct and pair the All-Stars and finalists together for the voting rounds the way they did during that magical Season 14 summer. If televised dance can be inspiration, then so can eternal, optimistic hope.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: So You Think You Can Dance, Nigel Lythgoe, Reality TV