New Year, new BBC talent show. But is the Corporation’s latest effort, The Greatest Dancer, any good?
In the run-up to Christmas, Saturday night TV is all about BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing versus ITV’s The X Factor. Now the new year is here, battle is renewed. ITV’s The Voice is back for its third season since switching channels. Every year since then, the Beeb has scheduled a new rival to go head-to-head against it. In 2017, Let It Shine recruited five male singers to front a Take That-themed jukebox musical. Last year, Pitch Battle searched for the UK’s best a cappella group.
From singing to dancing
This year, they’ve switched from singing to dancing. And why not? After all, Strictly is a ratings juggernaut. 13 million people tuned in to watch Stacey Dooley lift the Glitterball trophy last month.
The Greatest Dancer’s familiar premise has a new twist. Contestants arrive for their auditions. They perform in a dance studio with a mirrored wall, behind which sits a live audience. If 75% vote for them, the mirror opens to reveal the dancer and they progress to the next stage.
Although they play no part in this voting process, there is a panel of judges who will mentor successful dancers through the competition. Oti Mabuse is already well known from Strictly. Matthew Morrison is a Broadway performer best known to UK audiences as Will on Glee. And Cheryl I-don’t-have-a-surname-any-more is, of course, famous for her music career but, as the presenters repeatedly reminded us, has a tenuous connection to the Royal Ballet. (She once attended their summer school. So she wasn’t exactly the next Darcey Bussell. And she’s absolutely not on the show solely because of her star power. Oh no.)
Subjective vs objective decisions
Putting the initial decision in the hands of the audience is novel but fraught with danger. Inevitably there will be controversy when the audience’s and judges’ opinions disagree. And so it came to pass. Russian-trained classical ballet dancer Yassaui Mergaliyev failed to progress despite including a frankly dizzying 13 pirouettes in his routine. Meanwhile Cheryl super-fan James, whose freestyle dancing I would charitably term as ‘enthusiastic’, sailed through.
And herein lies a major problem with the show’s format. It isn’t just about talent. As with any reality show, audiences buy into a contestant’s ‘story’ as much as their ability. It’s a subjective process. We see this every year with both Strictly and X Factor. It’s not about being the best – it’s about the ‘journey’ and being the best ‘package’.
It can’t really be any other way. The audience aren’t professional judges, so they vote with their hearts. It was noticeable how often audience members pressed their buttons within the first two or three seconds of each performance. That’s far too soon to make any objective judgement.
Toby (eight), Kara (six) and I subsequently had an interesting discussion about who we would have voted for and why. We agreed we are all more likely to favour people dancing in styles we know and like. So we enjoyed the street and Latin routines but not the two tap-dancers (even though they seemed quite good). And the kids associated more strongly with other child acts than with, say, the former Pan’s People dancer and her group of older ladies. Like the audience, we form our opinion before the audition has even started. And then we see only what reinforces our original decision.
I stopped the conversation before I started ranting about confirmation bias, though. Not really the right sort of discussion for a Saturday night with an eight and a six-year-old …
A flawed format?
The show’s opening was also overly slow. We had to sit through the introduction of the presenters – the likeable Jordan Banjo from Diversity and former Strictly champion Alesha Dixon – the format and the judges. And then we had the painfully contrived contestants’-banter-with-the-studio-receptionist segment. It must have been the best part of ten minutes before we saw anyone actually dance. It felt like longer.
The pacing did improve after that, but I imagine several viewers gave up early. The whole Yassaui/James debacle didn’t help the show’s credibility either. Inevitably Twitter was outraged. (Of course it was: Twitter is always outraged.)
Like any good reality programme, the show did excel at providing a diverse, interesting range of contestant stories, albeit sticking largely to well established tropes. Of course, they saved the best until last. Andrew, the freestyle dancer with Down’s syndrome, won everyone over with a heart-warming story and a genuinely impressive audition. The show handled his introduction sensitively, focussing on his dancing as much as his condition and showing him as a real person rather than a convenient medical label. Inspiring but not excessively sappy.
So, was this opening episode a success? The overnight ratings showed that 4.6 million people watched Saturday’s show. (By comparison, The Voice debuted with 5.1 million.) So not a bad start, by any means.
However, critical reaction has been largely negative – and I have to agree. I don’t think we have the beginnings of a hit show here. Despite the gimmick of the audience deciding the outcome of the auditions (which I’m not a fan of), the formula is too well trodden and there’s too much talking and not enough actual dancing.
We may eventually find the greatest dancer, but I’m not convinced this will be the greatest show. It’s decent enough entertainment for a Saturday night – Toby and Kara certainly both enjoyed it – but there isn’t really anything here we haven’t seen before.