Why are so many so angry that Bristol Palin seems poised to win this fall's cycle of Dancing with the Stars?
Forget about the fans who have vowed to boycott the finale, the barely restrained comments of the last star Palin beat, R&B singer Brandy, or the guy who shot his TV set upon seeing the "teen advocate's" win last week. On Friday, someone sent an envelope of mysterious white powder to the show's studio (it was eventually found to be harmless), Palin and partner Mark Ballas have faced death threats and the producers were forced to deny a Chicago Sun-Times report that the voting process might change in the wake of her unexpected victories.
All this heat may seem a little overblown to longtime fans who, in their most honest moments, will admit DWTS success often comes from an odd combination of dancing ability, improvement over time and appeal to the program's middle-aged, female fan base.
But while a certain daughter of a certain tea party leader may have brought new buzz to network TV's highest-rated show, her ability to knock off better-regarded dancers has threatened the show's thin pretense: that the performances matter as much as audience appeal.
Tonight's two-hour finale, in fact, features finalists who are embodiments of the three factors that count most on DWTS. Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey is the best dancer left standing; Disney Channel actor Kyle Massey is the most improved and charismatic onstage; and Palin has an army of fans courtesy of her "Mama Grizzly" Sarah Palin who seem to have given her victory over dancers the judges rated higher.
In too many ways, this feels like an odd replay of the last election cycle, as Palin fans insist a liberally biased media is unfairly slagging a popular vote, and those who can't stand the Palins protest seeing the family notch an unearned victory just because it has an aggressive, motivated fan base .
The election comparison likely fits for just one reason: Devoted fans who love Palin's mom are stepping up to vote while others don't. (It is odd, though, to see a girl from a family of professional moralists accept wins handed down mostly because she's the daughter of a well-liked celebrity.)
For signs of how worried DWTS producers may be about a Palin win, see producer Conrad Green's brief media tour last week. That's where he insisted in interviews with the Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News that the show's voting process — half a contestant's score comes from judges and half from votes by viewers, who are limited to five votes each through phone calls and e-mail — eliminates ballots from fake e-mail addresses.
Because DWTS, like American Idol, doesn't release any voting details, there's no way to confirm his analysis. The information blackout may keep suspense high and results shocking, but it also means the younger Palin just might achieve what American Idol couldn't — hobbling the show's fan support by handing her a win big chunks of viewers suspect she doesn't deserve.
ABC just might be on the verge of outsmarting itself; using Palin's cult of personality to juice this cycle's ratings while ensuring a result that just might give the lie to everything Dancing with the Stars says it stands for.
Of course, if she doesn't win, Palin fans may insist the show rigged the vote to save the franchise. Whatever happens tonight, count on the show's judges and hosts to continue their penchant of spinning the result to minimize damage to the franchise.
Hope ABC executives have a lot of Maalox handy.