Yes, 'Dancing With The Stars' Is A Popularity Contest

The show's voting process has been scrutinized yet again, but the competition has always been about more than the cha-cha-cha.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

ABC’s queen of 2019, “The Bachelorette” star Hannah Brown, was officially crowned the champion of Season 28 of “Dancing with the Stars” on Monday night, beating out actor Kel Mitchell, pop star Ally Brooke and country singer Lauren Alaina in a nail-biter of a finale. Brown was the people’s princess, despite receiving weekly nitpicky critiques from the panel of expert judges, and therefore the rightful owner of the mirrorball trophy alongside her pro partner, Alan Bersten.

If Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli had it their way, perhaps perfect-scorer Brooke, whom they saved three times from elimination this season, would’ve won. Alas, the judges and viewers might never agree, but ultimately the fans can keep their favorites going ― and their outrage in check ― if they actually vote. As executive producer and showrunner Andrew Llinares told HuffPost, it’s not always about who’s the best dancer; it’s a popularity contest.

“Throughout the history of the show, there is one thing that you can guarantee: You can never predict what the result will be,” said Llinares, who joined the show for Season 26. “There are so many elements, in any given week, that play into a contestant’s performance and journey. The unique combination of the judges’ scores and the viewers’ votes gives insight on where the contestants are landing technically, but it also shows who has the most vocal fan base, which can lead to unpredictable results.”

Brown, who first appeared on Colton Underwood’s season of “The Bachelor” before being left heartbroken at the end of her own journey to find love, definitely had Chris Harrison and Bachelor Nation behind her. And those fans truly pushed her over the edge for the win.

The show’s voting process became a hot-button issue last year when “Fuller House” actor Juan Pablo Di Pace, who consistently earned 10s from the judges, was eliminated in the semifinal round. Likable country radio host Bobby Bones went on to beat out Milo Manheim, Evanna Lynch and Alexis Ren in the polarizing Season 27 finale, even though he was clearly the weakest dancer of the bunch. This situation reportedly led the show to add a new rule in Season 28, where the judges decide each week which couple in the bottom two goes home.

Initially, the tactic sounded like a way for the judges to guarantee a spot in the competition for talented dancers, giving someone deserving like “Glee’s” Heather Morris, who surprisingly placed eighth on Season 24 due to a possible lack of at-home voters, a better shot at the trophy.

But the rule had its kinks this season as contestants like Sean Spicer, who was a pretty terrible dancer and received consistently low scores, still made it very far in the competition thanks to viewers’ votes. (Spicer had the support of many Hollywood haters and President Trump, who encouraged his 67 million Twitter followers to vote for the former White House press secretary.) Each week, the judges were shocked Spicer was safe and had to prematurely send home great dancers like Karamo Brown of “Queer Eye” and Christie Brinkley’s daughter Sailor Brinkley-Cook instead. Spicer was finally on the bottom and chosen to be eliminated in Week 8, but the controversy didn’t end there.

Ahead of the finals last week, front-runner James Van Der Beek was selected by the judges to go home. Not only did the actor repeatedly earn high scores, he proved his dedication to the show when he danced in the semifinals amid news of his wife’s devastating miscarriage.

“The little soul that we had expected to welcome into our family took a shortcut to whatever lies beyond,” the actor, who shares five children with Kimberly Brook, said in an emotional pre-dance package. “You never know why these things happen. It’s what I’ve been telling my kids. All you know is that it brings you closer together. It breaks you open. It opens up your heart. Deepens your appreciation. Makes you more human.”

Van Der Beek dedicated his emotional foxtrot to his wife, and thanked her for urging him to remain in the competition, as he held their crying 9-year-old daughter, Olivia. The audience, fellow contestants, and hosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews were clearly devastated for him, but the judges gave him a 27 out of 30 for the dance. That score, combined with his first routine of the night, left the usual shoo-in on the bottom of the leaderboard with a total of 51 out of 60.

James Van Der Beek with his partner Emma Slater (right) on "Dancing with the Stars."
James Van Der Beek with his partner Emma Slater (right) on "Dancing with the Stars."
Eric McCandless via Getty Images

When the time came to reveal the bottom two, Bergeron and Andrews combined the judges’ totals with the viewers’ votes and announced that Brown, Alaina and Mitchell were moving on to the finals. Van Der Beek and his partner Emma Slater were up for elimination alongside Fifth Harmony singer Brooke and her pro Sasha Farber, who had earned a 59 out of 60. In a surprising choice, the judges decided to keep Brooke, who had previously been on the chopping block twice before. Visibly upset, she offered to give her spot to Van Der Beek, but he graciously refused.

Fans couldn’t believe the judges would send him packing after such a stellar run ― not to mention his family’s heartbreaking personal struggle. But, as mentioned, viewers get to vote to save their favorite, knowing full well the judges could send a solid contestant home if they land in jeopardy.

On “The Talk” last week, Inaba said she “vomited” after Van Der Beek’s exit.

“As a judge, I have to judge the dance,” she explained. “I know on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ we show their stories and we get to know them and they become family and their pain is my pain. But at the same time, it’s like in the Olympics if something happens to someone before they get on the gymnastics mat. It doesn’t matter what happens in your personal life, I have to judge what’s happening on the dance floor. In my opinion, I had to choose who I believed was the better dancer and had come further.”

Van Der Beek cheekily took to his Instagram stories ahead of the finale Monday to say that the show “has a little soul searching to do when they pick up all the confetti.”

“Thanks everybody for your outrage ... I appreciated it,” he added. “But, I will say, there is no trophy in the world that I wouldn’t have traded to be home with my family this week. 100%. And everybody in the finals worked really hard. The dances are great, so congratulations to everybody there.”

The judges’ save was not in play during the Season 28 finale. The scores plus the viewers’ votes were all that counted, as in previous seasons. So Brown, despite receiving a 58 out of 60 from the judges, was named champion with help from the at-home voters. (Mitchell placed second, Brooke third and Alaina fourth.)

“The charm of this show is watching a group of celebrities — who have never done ballroom or Latin dancing — come together to take on that challenge,” casting producer Deena Katz told HuffPost.

Llinares added, ”‘Dancing with the Stars’ is not a certified ballroom competition. It is an entertainment dance program that highlights the celebrities’ dancing progress, as well as their journey along the way. Viewers know they will be entertained, moved and inspired by these celebrities who are doing something completely out of their comfort zone.”

The best waltzer doesn’t always win ― sorry, judges ― but a contestant who displays cha-cha-cha skills, personal growth and a loyal following has a pretty good shot.

Alan Bersten, Hannah Brown and Tom Bergeron on the finale of "Dancing with the Stars."
Alan Bersten, Hannah Brown and Tom Bergeron on the finale of "Dancing with the Stars."
Eric McCandless via Getty Images

When asked about the staying power of “Dancing with the Stars,” Llinares gave an honest response. “Any show that’s been on for an extended period of time needs to evolve to stay entertaining and exciting for its viewers.”

“This year what we’ve tried to do — and what we hope we’ve achieved — is go back to the format’s core values,” he continued. “We focused more on the celebrities, as well as the ballroom and Latin dance styles. We also created an entirely new set to have a fresh approach to the lighting and creative direction, which makes the show, as a whole, feel more relevant.”

Relevant or not, “Dancing with the Stars” will reportedly not return for a spring season in 2020. (The show used to air two seasons a year, but cut the schedule down to one after Season 27.) And although ratings were steady with 6 to 7 million viewers weekly this year ― even hitting a high with Spicer’s eventual elimination in early November ― there’s no news on whether or not the show will be renewed. If it is, though, Katz will try her best to bring fans another exciting array of celebrity competitors.

“We research contestants year-round, looking for new ideas,” she said. “However, we’re not just casting for 12 or 13 celebrities. We’re casting for ‘the right mix’ that will create an experience that will work well for all. I often think of casting like a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces need to fit perfectly together. That includes the pros, because their job is to make the celebrity shine. We want to create the best partnerships possible and give our viewers the chance to see a different side of the celebrities as well as the expanding talent and personality of our pros each season. This relationship is key to our show.”

In terms of stars on the wish list, Katz admitted, “Jennifer Aniston and Bill Clinton may be the most requested.”

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