Scott Pierce: ‘SYTYCD’ is unfair to Utah’s Jenna Johnson

By Scott D. Pierce

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: August 23, 2013 09:35PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:32PM
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Cat Deeley, right, is television critic Scott D. Pierce's pick to win the Emmy as oustanding host in a reality/competition series. Courtesy photo

Life is not fair. Neither is “So You Think You Can Dance.”

If the Fox reality/competition show was about dancing talent and nothing else, Utahn Jenna Johnson wouldn’t keep ending up on the bottom when the viewers’ votes are counted, thus needing the judges to save her.

That happened again last week. As it has four of the past five weeks. Despite the fact that Johnson has pretty much been showered with praise by the judges.

But life isn’t fair. And “SYTYCD” is, first and foremost, a TV show. Duh.

“We are an entertainment show,” said executive producer/judge Nigel Lythgoe. “And we have to be an entertainment show. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be on the air.

“Dance is a very niche market when you’re doing it in the art side of it, rather than in the celebrity side of it, like ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ And so we need to bring as many people to the party as possible.”

But, as with all talent competitions, it’s subjective. Which makes it tough on the contestants.

“I love being on this show,” Johnson said. “It’s the greatest thing ever.

“But the hardest part is waiting to hear the results of the vote. And no matter how well we do, it’s up to the people watching. And the judges.”

That’s why “SYTYCD” has never declared its winner to be America’s best dancer. It’s always been America’s favorite dancer, given that the ultimate decision is left up to people who don’t necessarily know anything about the art form.

The viewers.

“Fifty-one percent is personality on this show, even more than technique or anything else,” Lythgoe said. “You will always find that personality wins over technique on this show.”

It’s also true that the dancers are, to no small degree, at the mercy of the choreographers. Great choreography can help a contestant get votes; not-so-great choreography doesn’t help.

“I try to put out a great piece of choreography, or something that everyone’s going to talk about,” said choreographer Travis Wall, who was the runner-up on Season 2 in 2006. “ But my job as a choreographer is to make those contestants get voted for that week. So when I’m creating the piece, I don’t put something on the contestant that I think is going to look bad. I really try to make the contestant look as great as possible.”

Lythgoe disagreed with my assertion that sometimes he and the other judges critique the choreography to the detriment of the dancers. But he agreed that choreography counts, pointing to one instance when one pair of dancers got choreography that made them look “fantastic” while another got a piece that was “esoteric, at best.”

“I think you have to call it out,” said Mary Murphy.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.