Steve Braunias looks back on 10 weeks of the toughest assignment in New Zealand journalism — reviewing the entire season of Dancing with the Stars, which ends tomorrow night.
Tomorrow night's grand finale of comedy series Dancing with the Stars will end with a whimper, or a sound much like it, probably a long, sad sigh, when I press SEND on my final review.
It's been a journey. It's been a challenge. It's been a pleasure to chronicle the past 10 weeks with the kind of running commentary which at times suggested I loathed the show and thought it represented the nadir of human endeavour, but I was just horsing around. I had a really good time writing about it and it occupied my every waking hour between when the show started and the copy deadline of approximately 9:45pm, so nearly three waking hours on Sunday and Monday nights.
A nitwit writing in one of the inferior Sunday papers claimed that I was under orders to review every episode. Fake news bro. I'm perfectly capable of coming up with my own bad ideas. Let the email evidence show that I got in early. The series began at the end of April; I emailed a section editor on April 5, at 8.27pm – bad ideas come at any time of day or night – and offered to review a series that I'd never actually ever watched or knew anything about but gathered that it was probably going to huge.
I wanted to get in on the action. Something of huge cultural significance was on its way. The whole country would watch. Where New Zealand goes, I go, too. I wasn't to know then that I'd stay while the country left in droves.
The opening episode drew the highest audience of the entire series, attracting 457,000 viewers. It dropped beneath 400,000 after three programmes and never got above that figure again, steadily plummeting down to 360,000, then 330,000, then 310,000....Two weeks ago it scored a low, low 262,000. It's going too far to say it tanked but it's going far enough to say it failed to transfix the nation.
Still, the show climbed back up to 378,900 last week, for the semi-final, and tomorrow night's final is probably going to be huge. There are four dancers left – Shav, Sam, Chris, Jess – and they're all really good at dancing. The other half of the equation is that they all need to be really good at connecting with the voting public, and this is where Sam, Chris and Jess have an advantage over poor old Shav, a thrilling, exuberant dancer who has been demoted to the dreaded and humiliating dance-off on three occasions. "I don't know why I keep seeing you here," wondered Judge Rachel, who mustn't have noticed the colour of Shav's skin.
God knows there are few things drearier and more annoying for white New Zealanders to be told they hold racist views – anyone else feeling for Sir Bob Jones? - but let the evidence show that the voting public has sent a message not once, not twice, but three times to Shav they want the last remaining Maori to leave the programme. One of my reviews began, "First they came for the Persians." The first contestants to be voted off were Gilda and Naz. The review continued, "And then they came for Maori. Marama Fox got the boot, Robert Rakete got the boot..."
All of which could be coincidence. Certainly I remember feeling annoyed at the dreary assertions made on social media early on in the series that Dancing with the Stars was racist because the judges gave low scores to Marama Fox. It seemed more likely they gave her low scores because she deserved them. They later gave her high scores when she provided the greatest single spectacle of the entire series by performing an inspired poi dance. Maoritanga had come to Dancing with the Stars and it was special, transformative, beautiful.
At any rate, my review which noted the show's apparent determination to rid people of colour went down badly with some readers. "I don't know whether to puke or laugh," emailed Mary. She then went on to perform both functions when she wrote, "Would you rather we had to look at the haka? I don't think so!!" I replied, "Yes I would much rather look at the haka, now you mention it."
I usually always entered into correspondence with readers who emailed – I find email brings out a better, more understanding class of troll – and found value in the argument that my reviews were sometimes too mean, too dismissive, too much. But how else to write about the appalling David Seymour?
He made it his show and there was no denying he did it in good, self-mocking spirits as he danced like a robot, like someone in a coma, like an amoebic cell. I've not followed his career as an Act MP very closely but it's possible that his political legacy will never match the impact and power of something that became a national chant: text DAVID to 3333. The texts duly poured in, and ensured the survival of the worst dancer to appear on Earth since the cosmic science of gas and matter created the planet.
But the whole thing resembled a schoolboy prank, and that low, low audience figure of 262,000 was the result. The producers had enough. The fix was in. "I smell a rat," I wrote in Tuesday morning's review, noting that when I texted DAVID to 3333, I got back a reply saying voting had closed. Other viewers had the same experience. Lois emailed, in fulminating caps, "LAST NIGHT 4 TEXTS WERE REJECTED, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON????" And this, from Kath: "My rejected vote texts were sent before Dai [Henwood, the show's co-host] announced the cut-off. I'm convinced they corked the pipe."
Corked the pipe! What a brilliant phrase. Kath added, sagely, "It's probably for the best but dodgier than David's dancing in my opinion." I pursued the matter with Mediaworks. A spokesperson, imitating a robot, responded via email: "Different telcos have different processing abilities at peak times, meaning there can be a slight delay if there is a backlog of votes to process. Last night's voting numbers were unprecedented. Vote early to ensure your vote is processed successfully."
Thanks, robot, but I'm calling bullshit on that. My hot take on this pressing concern is that disastrous ratings gave the producers no choice than to get rid of Seymour, to fiddle the result, to – this is an original phrase, I'm copyrighting it, bro – cork the pipe. Shocking. But there you have it. Sam, Chris, Jess and a Maori have made it into tomorrow night's final. May the best dancer and most socially acceptable contestant win.
I'll miss it when it's gone. There was a sweetness to the show. The set was cheap and looked like it was filmed in Romania before the wall came down, the banter was deadening and the whole thing was really just a cynical branding exercise for some low-rent radio and television broadcasters on the Mediaworks payroll, but it raised money for charity and everyone seemed very nice.
I liked the judges, especially Julz. I liked both the co-hosts, especially Sharyn. Early on in the series, I emailed a veteran host of light entertainment junk and asked him what he made of Dai Henwood's hesitant and sometimes anxious performance, and he remarked, "I bet the producers have told him to be more warm than funny and when funny is your go-to it's hard to be warm." Well, it's better to have one of those qualities than neither, which might have been a central fault of my 19 reviews, make that 20 on Monday morning.
Most of all I liked the contestants. They were talented, hard-working Kiwis. Gilda. Naz. Zac. Marama. Robert. Suzy. Roger. David. Sam. Chris. Jess. Text SHAV to 3333, and don't forget to vote early to ensure your vote is processed successfully.