Does it make any difference that a reality show like “Dancing With the Stars” is long in the tooth? No, it doesn’t. Not when the producers have gathered a cast of characters that includes wild man Gary Busey, snake charmer Bindi Irwin, butter queen Paula Deen, pop legend Chaka Khan, a couple of boy band stars, a social media phenom and a newly crowned American hero.
That’s a breath of fresh air, even for a series that has a definite, established (some might say tired) formula. Season 21’s contestants bring baggage and potential, loyal fans and hardened haters. It’s a decent recipe for success or, at the very least, wacky entertainment.
The show kicked off last night with a big Hollywood Boulevard flash-mob-style number and continued at a quick clip with intros to all the 13 competitors. How long before Busey brought the crazy? Not long at all, which bodes well for his run. He’s an early audience favorite, so expect him to stick around for a while.
Here’s what happened, in sort-of alphabetical order:
Alek Skarlatos and Lindsay Arnold
Sacramento native Alek and his two childhood friends overpowered a suspected terrorist who opened fire on a train from Amsterdam to Paris a few weeks ago. They’re now international heroes, and Alek, an Army National Guardsman, is hoofing it with “So You Think You Can Dance” alum Lindsay.
She says his work ethic and willingness to take direction are among his strongest assets, making up for his lack of dance background. Their foxtrot to Afrojack’s “Ten Feet Tall” brought the house down, and Alek has fairly quickly found his footing on unfamiliar ground.
Co-host Tom Bergeron was the first to thank Alek for his courage, saying, “You represent the best of who we all hope we could be.”
Carrie Ann Inaba called it “one of best dances of the night,” and Bruno Tonioli judged him light on his feet. Co-host Erin Andrews dubbed him “America’s sweetheart” responsible for “a very special moment” on the premiere.
Score: A well-deserved 22, which means there’s room for improvement and the bar’s not being set unrealistically high.
Alexa PenaVega and Mark Ballas
An actress from the “Spy Kids” family film franchise, Alexa is half of the only married couple to ever compete on the series. She may already be considered one of the front-runners in this contest, and her jive with Mark went pretty well.
Mark, it should be noted, wears a man bun. So does Alexa’s husband. Plus or minus for Alexa? Discuss.
Bruno thought she was a “hot sexy wild Latina,” just like he likes (uncomfortable chuckles rippled through the audience), and said her “kicks and flicks” were solid. Carrie Ann thought she danced with “sensuality and strength” but needs to watch the arm that’s not in the hold position. Julianne thought the routine had “so much content” and that Alexa had “amazing presence.”
Score: 22, with extra love from Bruno
Andy Grammer and Allison Holker
This pop singer-songwriter performed his hit, “Honey, I’m Good,” on “DWTS” last season, and he said it made him feel close to his mother, who died six years ago. She was a big dance fan, and he’s now dedicating his performance to her.
So, a vote against Andy is a vote against his beloved dead mom. Take that, viewers.
He and Allison were picture perfect together during their foxtrot, and he was “dashing and confident” but his footwork and rise and fall need smoothing out, Bruno said. Julianne liked his musicality and strong lines, but Carrie Ann thought he needed a better connection with his partner.
Score: Probably better than they deserved at 21.
Bindi Irwin and Derek Hough
The Aussie actress and conservationist is so relentlessly chipper that it’s impossible not to like her. She’s wearing her first high heels on the show after saying that her usual khaki uniform isn’t so much fashion as it is a lifestyle. How is any 17-year-old kid this cool? I want her to be my mate.
Paired with five-time Mirrorball champ and all-around killer performer Derek, Bindi looked tough from the start. And they were in khaki (at least for a while, until Bindi’s tear-away dress tore away to reveal a sparkly costume underneath). And Derek already met a baby alligator during a break in rehearsals.
Their jive to “Crocodile Rock” worked the crowd into a near frenzy. Julianne Hough called it the “best performance of the night,” while Bruno dubbed her “the wonder from down under.” If Carrie Ann were 30 years younger, she’d want to be Bindi’s BFF (and date Hayes – more on that later).
Score: 24, tied for the lead
Carlos PenaVega and Witney Carson
There’s almost always a boy band rep in the house, but this season there are two. Carlos was in Big Time Rush, a pop act birthed on a Nickelodeon TV program of the same name, and he’s the other half of the first married couple to ever compete on “DWTS.”
Neither Carlos nor his wife, Alexa, has ballroom training, but they can both move. Carlos sometimes wears a man bun. What else do we need to know at this point?
Julianne thought he was the “most natural performer” of the night and that he “looks like a man” on the dance floor. Carrie Ann and Bruno want more from him, but liked the jive he and Witney did to the James Brown classic tune, “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
Score: 23, with Bruno messing up a line of perfect 8s with his 7
Carlos seemed OK with the score, as long as he gets to keep his wife’s skimpy spangled costume. No really, he said to co-host Erin Andrews: ask wardrobe if we can take it home.
Chaka Khan and Keo Motsepe
These two had a little good-natured face-off during pre-show rehearsals based on their titles. Keo let Chaka know that he’s actually a South African prince. She reminded him that she’s royalty, with her 10 Grammys and 70 million records sold. The guy knows when he’s outranked. He called her “a legend, a diva, a queen.”
The couple did a cha cha to a cover of her massive hit, “I Feel for You,” and she didn’t so much dance as gyrate to the beat after floating into the ballroom on a suspended platform. The judges weren’t kind, with Carrie Ann saying Chaka had so much fun she “kinda forgot the choreography,” and Bruno noting that even though she’s a “goddess descending,” she didn’t have the technique, foot placement or hip action needed for the style. Julianne told her to take up more space.
Score: One of the lowest of the bunch at 13.
Gary Busey and Anna Trebunskaya
He’s an Oscar nominee for “The Buddy Holly Story,” and he’s also a commercial star these days. Maybe Gary’s best known, though, for being a live wire, a Skeletor look-alike and a massive goofball. I mean that lovingly, of course.
During rehearsal with the gorgeous Russian and 11-time “DWTS” pro, he can’t quite get the steps and asks her, “Am I really slow?” She reassures him that he’s “learning a brand new language.” That language includes some kung fu and kickboxing moves, apparently, that Anna was either too nice or too afraid to cut out of the routine.
Their cha cha to “Dancing in the Street” was long on showmanship but short on real dance. No matter. The crowd went nuts for Gary, and then he busted out some crazy on Bergeron. Go ahead and try to dissect that interaction. If you figure out what Gary was talking about, please let me know. I did get the part where he gave a shout-out to his mother, making it the second dead-mom reference of the night.
Carrie Ann said he gave the routine “1,000 percent,” and Julianne called him “larger than life.” “I don’t know how great of a cha cha that was, but we had a great time” watching, she said, noting that he likely “stole America’s hearts.”
Right about now, did anyone except me start to miss Len Cranky Pants Goodman?
Score: A passable 15
Hayes Grier and Emma Slater
You don’t know the significance of a Vine star? That’s because you are old. Just kidding. Everybody’s old compared to Hayes, who has some 8 million social media followers and at 15 is the youngest male to ever compete on the show.
He does some "dancing" in practice that Emma compares to a T-Rex. He repeats these moves for the studio audience and Andrews. Everyone is confused but amused. Will that get him a date to the prom? Heavens no. That’s why he needs the cha cha, and Emma smartly set a high-school theme and picked current bouncy pop hit “Cheerleader” for their routine.
He’s not a dancer, but at least he looked like he was having fun and not counting steps, like so many novices do.
Julianne told him to focus on his core and open his eyes, while Bruno called him a “boy wonder,” with natural musicality. Carrie Ann said his assets are his “youthful gawkiness” and “great stage persona.” And then she hit on him. Not really (?).
The judges liked what they saw. Score: An optimistic 21.
Kim Zolciak Biermann and Tony Dovolani
She’s a real housewife of Atlanta with a hot bod, big wigs and six kids who has trouble letting go. She’s a bit of a control freak, she admitted during the pre-taped segment, and wants everything in her life to appear perfect.
No such luck with the Cleopatra-themed salsa routine to chart topper “Hey Mama,” where Tony had tried to cover up her lack of dancing prowess by including a bunch of pros in the number. She knew she didn’t perform well, but was so relieved that she cried at the end. Who knew she’d be the first to shed a tear?
Carrie Ann and Julianne lectured her about holding back and said she won’t be able to do “the bare minimum” and stay in the contest. Bruno told her she has to “sell it.” Nearly everyone made some kind of reference to her hot bod, and she couldn’t stop mentioning her pro football player husband.
Score: A measly 12, the bottom of the barrel
Nick Carter and Sharna Burgess
Nick is the other boy band star and, arguably, a much bigger star than Carlos PenaVega. Backstreet Boys were huge in the ’90s and have sold a total of 130 million records in the ensuing decades.
They were famous enough that Sharna had posters of Nick all over her room as a teenager, and she readily admits that fact. Awkward? It doesn’t seem to be. Anyway, Nick’s reportedly scared to death to ballroom dance, so she can trump him there.
He said he used to hide behind the other guys in the band and that he gets “fingery” when he dances. Here’s my assessment: he’s a ringer. Boo, false modesty!
Julianne, who also had his face plastered on her bedroom walls, blushed and said he was fantastic. Bruno predicted he’d be around for weeks to come, and Carrie Ann cautioned him about the nervous jitters but thought the routine was “excellent.”
Score: 24, tied for the lead
Paula Deen and Louis van Amstel
The infamous TV chef is easily distracted, and she burps in her dance partner’s face during rehearsal. Hello, Paula! I’m expecting great things from you this season, and by that I mean histrionics, tears, drama and silliness. I think she will not disappoint me.
Their quickstep to “Hey Good Looking,” started in a kitchen setting – with lots of saturated fat on the countertop, natch – and ended with Deen saying she’d probably soiled her undies because nerves. Hello, Paula!
Then she wanted a do-over.
Julianne thought she was holding onto Louis for dear life during that performance, and Bruno compared her to a barnacle (he probably didn’t meant the edible type). She should strive to be more like a soufflé, he said.
Tamar Braxton and Valentin Chmerkovskiy
She’s a Grammy-nominated singer, reality show star and talk show host. He’s the puffed-up reigning Mirrorball Trophy champ. And they’re both strong-willed people, as evidenced by their video practice session in which he says he’s the boss and she tells him to talk less.
They kind of murdered that quickstep, especially considering it was a first effort. It’s obvious that Tamar has rhythm and coordination. Beyond that, she’s a performer, which puts her way ahead of some of her competitors.
Bruno called the dance “a brilliant beginning,” and Carrie Ann said she was surprised at how well Tamar did with the difficult style. Julianne called her a “feisty, fierce woman” who showed “elegance and femininity.”
Score: A solid 23.
Victor Espinoza and Karina Smirnoff
He’s a pint-sized Triple Crown winner, which works perfectly for his day job but not so well for partner dancing, and she’s a wily competitor.
Karina, returning to the series this season, shows just how smart she is by dressing Victor in jockey silks (with a bedazzled helmet!) and telling him to simulate riding a horse instead of attempting a salsa.
Carrie Ann, while noting that he didn’t do any of the assigned dance, said he “horsed it up,” which probably means galloping and stuff. Just like American Pharaoh! Well, not really. But he was “focused and bright,” and “adorable,” she said.
Julianne might’ve summed it up his swiveling and grinding best: “Those hips, though!”
Score: A just-fair 15 out of 30.