For a moment, it seemed celebrity and fame might actually trump dancing ability on television's biggest dance contest.
But in the end, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward continued the long tradition of professional athletes dominating Dancing With the Stars Tuesday, taking the top prize on ABC's popular competition ahead of 60-year-old actress Kirstie Alley. Ward made it to the winner's circle after a host of challenges, from accidentally falling on dance partner Kym Johnson last week to being mistakenly detained by police at gunpoint weeks earlier.
Already, Alley had scored something of an upset, displacing former Disney Channel star Chelsea Kane to take second place on the show, despite a past performance where she fell over and another where she lost a shoe.
From the season's start, the show seemed to tilt the scales a bit toward Alley, easily the most famous celebrity competing in the contest. But Alley's experience on the show also fit the journey voters at home love to see, as the overweight actress lost pounds and grew more confident as a dancer, even while clashing with her headstrong professional partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy.
Given her fame and how closely she resembles the show's core audience of middle-aged women, Alley could have been a stone's throw away from winning it all — despite the fact that her actual dance ability probably fell somewhere behind fourth-place finisher, onetime Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio.
Unfortunately, the events described took place in the final 10 minutes of a two-hour finale, making Tuesday's episode one of the most padded television events in recent memory. If this show could have a nutritional chart slapped on the side, it would most likely read "99 percent filler," as producers lined up every dancer ejected over the course of the show to step onstage and prove once again why they are not in contention anymore.
Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Tampa-based wrestler Chris Jericho faced off in a war of clunky, stolid dance moves. Meanwhile, former Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson donned a bra that set off fireworks before launching into a routine which seemed better suited to a stripper pole.
The show's judges were little help. At this stage in the game, they mostly exist to offer empty praise, though each semifinalist performed a final dance for an actual score (judges points are combined with viewer votes to deliver the result). But every dancer got a perfect 30 points in his or her last dance — 10 points each from Len Goodman, Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli — leaving viewers to wonder why anyone bothered.
The easy answer, of course, was to fill time. How else to make a show centered on choosing among three semifinalists last for 120 minutes or more? One day before the end of May's important "sweeps" rating period, that may have been the most important dance of all.
Concluding in a whirl of bizarre celebrity appearances — from a smiling Sarah Palin to a song from Sara Evans, the country singer who quit the show in 2006 amid a messy divorce containing allegations of porn watching and adultery — Dancing With the Stars remains a fiercely middlebrow, candy-coated pleasure. Even if there's lots of empty calories hidden somewhere in the middle.