— The last season of “Dancing with the Stars” bombarded viewers with promos for “Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann.” After Monday night’s premiere episode, it’s not clear how, other than providing two familiar faces, the so-called spin-off was meant to satisfy fans of the hit celeb competition.
In fact, just two hours into “Dance War’s” run, it feels more like a mashup of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” than anything related to the ballroom bash. There’s no quick-witted Tom Bergeron bringing the charm, no opportunity to root for someone with two left feet as they attempt to match professional hoofers, and no built-in draw, like, stars (or reasonable facsimiles).
Instead this battle for a “singing and dancing supergroup” pits “Dancing” judges Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba against each other as they cobble together their own groups of amateur double-threats. Even the premise seems more well suited a pair of judges with some history of animosity, say a certain Simon and Paula, rather than Bruno and Carrie Ann, who so far giggle and smile through their threats to “fight it out.”
Starting off on the wrong foot
“Two titans, two teams, one battle…this is ‘Dance War!’” The teaser sounded sort of exciting when host Drew Lachey opened the show, but in a night that went straight from auditions to the final 14, the drama just wasn’t there. Then again, it’s hard to drum up tension with out an element of suspense.
It was obvious from the start that in order to go through three cities worth of auditions, callbacks and the shortlist of finalists, nearly all of the dancers profiled on stage would at least make to Hollywood. So when Bruno or Carrie Ann stopped referring to someone as #9026 and used his or her first name instead, the jig was up.
Sure B&C went through the motions and gathered the groups for on-stage cuts in each city anyway, leaving the audience to ponder, “Will the highlighted dancers make it through, or that team of unrecognizable no-names?” Again and again, predictability ruled the night.
Attempts at manufactured drama, straight out of the reality TV handbook, failed as well. When three dancers introduced as best friends hoped to make it through together, it was fair to guess the band of gal pals would face a tearful split. And they did. But without much of a build up, or time to grow to care about the performers, the ploy fell flat.
‘You’re going to Hollywood!’
After endless versions of the same few songs — seriously, either “Dance War” offered contestants the shortest song list in the biz, or the kids of today are really wild about “My Girl” and “Amazing Grace” — the time came for trip to La La Land where the group of 28 remaining performers were whittled down further.
While the hopefuls prepared with a much-needed vocal coach and choreographers, Bruno and Carrie Anne stopped by to assess their progress and warn the group about the serious challenge they faced. That’s when it became clear that “Dancing with the Stars” judges left their previous personas behind.
For five seasons dance fans have known Carrie Ann as the nitpicker, criticizing the tiniest technical flaws. It’s downright jarring to hear her speculate on the “raw talent” of even the worst of the dance-wannabes. And Bruno, previously regarded as the go-to man for a sound bite (“you were a tantalizing temptress of tango!”), lost his charm with long-winded pep talks.
In what was perhaps a last ditch effort to offer something unexpected, the rushed final cuts appeared totally random. The ambitious young move maker Bruno and Carrie Anne compared to Leroy from “Fame?” Out. The songstress with no sense of rhythm? In! The post-cull talent balance remained the same; it just included fewer participants.
Nothing reinforced that idea more than the unfortunate group routine that closed the premiere. If reality talent comps fans know anything, it’s that it’s rare enough for one amateur to command the stage with perfect moves or consistent vocal skills. Throw 14 of them together and it’s a cringe-worthy chaos of stomping and glory notes.
Explaining “Dance War’s” raison d'être, Bruno said, “I’ve always wanted to put singing and dancing together and reinvent it for a new generation.” But Monday night’s small screen debut seemed anything but new. It’s ironic, given its connection to “Dancing with the Stars,” that “Dance War” manages to rehash every TV talent competition except the one that spawned it.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to Msnbc.com.